The Smart ForTwo isn't so much a small car as a short one. At just eight feet from stem to stern, it’s by far the shortest car on the market. What's the difference between small and short? A small car can stay low to the ground to achieve excellent handling and fuel economy. A short car only excels at one thing: unmetered parallel parking. The first-generation Smart proved the point. As reviewed on TTAC, it was a noisy, slow, poor-handling, stiff-legged, bouncy and crashy car with meh mileage. So, Daimler says it’s rectified the first-gen's faults. Is Version 2.0– headed stateside in 2008– ready for prime time?
The new ForTwo maintains its Tonka-toy proportions and look at me I’m wearing designer glasses (without a prescription) unconventionality. There’s now a painted parenthesis around the driver’s compartment: a clever if unsuccessful attempt to reassure drivers that Smart’s got their back (as there’s nothing much behind them). From certain angles, the slash-marked Four Two looks like a Pokemon with weird sideburns. Anyway, there’s no denying that observers (especially women) fight the urge to muss the ForTwo’s metaphorical hair and pinch its figurative cheeks.
The ForTwo’s new cabin uses shapes, textures and fonts with a bit less originality than before. The dash is now monolithic in the mighty Mercedes manner. And it's a shame the signature twin periscopes (rpms and clock) aren’t standard issue. On the positive side, the interior is still remarkably airy and spacious: a haven for a brace of art loving urbanites. The materials quality and fit and finish surpass Ye Olde SMART’s by a wide margin. Better yet, the ForTwo’s trunk can now swallow a full 58 gallons of luggage. One more Tumi for the road?
The stateside Smarts are motivated by a one-liter, three cylinder engine. The erstwhile powerplant is a revvy little beast, even at idle. Annoying stationary vibration aside, the mini-mill certainly gives its all– 70 horses– to the cause of forward momentum. Guide the tachometer needle to the 6500rpm redline and you just might accelerate (if that’s the right word) from rest to 60mph in 12 seconds. The ForTwo will also cruise relatively comfortably at 70mph. That’s provided you can wait that long and surmount the recalcitrance of the FourTwo's passion killing gearbox.
The original SMART was rightly and roundly criticized for its hesitant transmission. The new box still changes gears sequentially (when you request) or automatically (when it feels like it). Gear change times are reduced. But sadly, the new ForTwo still shifts the way Frank Costanza talks. Driving softly, the box swaps cogs smoothly. But hard acceleration will make you and your passenger look like diehard (one hopes) headbangers. Even worse, if you need a burst of oomph for emergency overtaking, the Smart ForTwo will pause for a moment or two before summoning more shove– while you contemplate a messy and untimely death.
The ForTwo’s suspension is also improved– but not by enough. For a city car that’s shorter than an NBA player carrying a midget on his shoulders, the ForTwo v2 rides pretty well. For any other type of car, the suspension sucks. You'd have to be a fan of sadomasochism lite to enjoy the Smart's hard not to say buckboard-quality ride. If potholes mar your local landscape, well, a smart Smart owner will have his chiropractor on speed dial.
The other downside of a hard-sprung car: you can be fooled into believing it handles well. Yes, the ForTwo corners flat. And it's true: my tester’s unassisted steering was as meaty as a cauldron of Texas chili. But the ForTwo's limits are lower than snake hips, and the ESP handling nanny is always on duty. Not to put too fine a point on it, an aggressive driver can put the ForTwo into any handling attitude they like– as long as it's an understeer slide.
So the Smart is an unpleasant-to-drive, one-trick pony. And yet there are plenty of people– some 30k American early adopters at last count– who couldn’t care less about its dreadful driving dynamics. To wit: on a three-hundred mile mosey along the Moselle River, my girlfriend fell in love with the ForTwo. She was charmed by the friendly questions posed by rural Belgians, and amused when the driver of a twenty-ton truck honked and gave us a thumbs up as we passed on a twisty mountain road (I was frozen with fear).
I reckon the Smart ForTwo is the automotive equivalent of Maxwell Smart's Cone of Silence: a great idea in theory, a laughable device in practice. Then again, the ForTwo is a statement. And it does bear a striking resemblance to the Porsche 911: a patently ridiculous concept made drivable by obsessive-compulsive German engineers. But while the Porsche has almost always made money, the Smart never has. Judging from v2, it probably never will.