Review: 2009 Carlsson Smart ForTwo

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

Per Wikipedia, the Marxist theory of False Consciousness claims, “material processes in capitalist society are misleading to the proletariat.” Trabants aside, it’s pretty clear that the founders of Communism would love today’s Smart ForTwo. It’s the one-dimensional vehicle that denies its occupants the luxury of time, space and value. But it’ll pop eyeballs like Gisele Bündchen in a Target. It didn’t hurt that my tester had the blessings of noted Mercedes tuner, Carlsson Autotechnik. Too bad it didn’t help.

Styling is one of the few (marketing) advantages of the Smart ForTwo, and your average pedestrian and shallow fashionista already know that. But I reckon most readers of this website cringe after spotting one. The Carlsson styling upgrades neutralize that stomach acid but still keep the general public’s interest. The muscled-up front fascia sports a lower valance, subtle fog lights and a mesh grille are a vast (OK tiny) improvement, while the rear’s wanna-be diffuser looks the part with a quad tipped exhaust. Win.

But the metal’s meaningless without the 25mm lowering springs and upgraded hoops; the standard 15-inch wheels make way for 16s in the front, 17s at the rear. Measuring an inch wider than stock and pushed to the fender’s edge, the Carlsson Smart ForTwo is a pissed-off tween: adorable, assertive, but more than a little awkward.

Since everything’s bigger in Texas, I was more than a little surprised at how well the Smart’s interior fared in a random test of excited bystanders. Classy polymers, fabulous fabrics and a panoramic roof offer more interior blingery than other “economy” cars. The Smart’s ergonomically advanced dashboard is a boon to cubby-seekers: the (normally wasted) space around the steering column makes a great home for your Blackberry, finger foods or spare change. While Carlsson’s aluminum pedals and embroidered floor mats look tuner car cool, they aren’t over the top enough to draw eyes away from the factory stuff: even the stock, leather wrapped, tiller feels even better than it looks.

Fire up the Smart’s three-banger motor and a robust one-liter of engine displacement bellows through Carlsson’s tuned muffler. Even with the hot-rod demeanor accentuated by the lively 10:1 compression ratio, there’s no escaping the Smart’s disappointment of owning one (or three) fewer cylinders than anything else at this price point. Put the tennis ball stitched gearshift in drive and the letdowns roll on like a government-funded bailout.

With an 1800 lb curb weight, the 75-ish horsepower (up from 71 hp stock), naturally aspirated Carlsson Smart ForTwo is somewhat lively on surface streets, especially between 20 and 40 mph in second gear. Leave that magical window of respectability and the five-speed manumatic’s absolutely horrendous gear changes crash the party. With the added exhaust rumble magnifying the loss of engine revs, the dramatic sighing-to-grunting action is “granny shifting” über alles. And it’s a shame the wheel-mounted paddles can’t change the Smart’s tune.

From the moment you fart [ED: dart?] out of a parking spot to a WOT run on an onramp, the Smart is a no fun zone. Freeway maneuvering is an exercise in calculated risks, since you are faster than nobody. Breaking free of the crowd risks exposure to stiff crosswinds that push the Smart around with the veracity of Nelson Muntz. If more people knew what it takes to keep a Smart ForTwo tracking straight in deteriorating weather, the roadside “haw-haws!” would be imminent.

Given the European tuner car quotient, perhaps the improved handling compensates. Like a stocker, the Carlsson Smart ForTwo pushes in corners, unable to defy its SUV-worthy center of gravity. The larger tires add an extra modicum of grip: a welcome margin of safety to ensure the Smart’s copious body roll becomes nothing more than a wake up call for wannabe hoons who missed the latest IIHS crash tests. Turn-in and steering feel is unbelievably dull for a rear engine vehicle: a not so subtle reminder that the Smart ForTwo is a commuter car with zero sporting intentions.

Which normally equates to a smooth ride. But if a stock Smart ForTwo can’t muster a reasonably isolated passenger compartment, the Carlsson tweaks don’t stand a chance. The ride is terrible, “thanks” to low profile tires, lowering springs and a miniscule footprint. Not to mention the noise: road growl is so prevalent that an impromptu phone call from Farago needed a follow up email to clarify our conversation. Or lack thereof.

The Carlsson-fettled Smart ForTwo fixes none of the platform’s inherent deficiencies. It’s still a deeply flawed fashion statement living in a hotly contested price point. Product features, safety and dreadful performance (on premium fuel) are only the beginning. But the Carlsson Smart ForTwo looks like it’s got a pair, which admittedly is half the battle. A better transmission is next on the wish list.

[ Motorwerks of Houston provided the vehicle reviewed]

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Ctoan Ctoan on May 05, 2009

    The problem I have with this car is that it purports to be the "baseline car" i.e. that which the stereotyped environmentalist would want a damn good reason for having anything more than. The problem is that it does a poor job of the things that cars are ideally used for: hauling people and stuff over extended distances. The ride sucks, the engine sucks, the transmission sucks, and it has no storage room. It does carry two people spaciously, though. Now, if you live in New York or Boston or a poorly-designed smaller city and have a dire hatred of mass transit (or mass transit doesn't serve you), then I'm sure it's perfect. Considering what you're getting, though, a Yaris or Accent makes a far better baseline car. Buying a Smart, and only a Smart, means you have to be certain you'll never want to carry more than two people, carry any appreciable amount of stuff, or drive a long distance. For most people, that's probably way too much of a sacrifice. Now, sure, the "what-if utility" argument is often used in support of SUVs, but most people have probably done something they couldn't or wouldn't do in a Smart in the last week, if not every day. I'm sure it also makes a decent commuter vehicle, if you don't mind that it's horrible to drive, but having a "commuter car," as opposed to simply "a car" is presupposing a certain level of luxury in one's lifestyle to begin with, which is pretty far away from aforementioned stereotyped environmentalist ideal. Now, if it wants to be a niche vehicle, and only a niche vehicle, that's perfectly fine, but I'd appreciate it not being held up as an example of whatever outside of that very specific niche.

  • Flashpoint Flashpoint on May 08, 2009

    The only way in hell you'd see me in one of these is if there were special roads in DISNEYLAND and they let you rent these for it. I'd rather have a Mini Cooper - or even better, a motor scooter.

  • Sobro Needs moar Roots.
  • RHD Questions? None, no, not really. Interested in some random Hyundai? No, not at all. Yawn.
  • Formula m Alfa-Romeo had the great idea to unveil my all time favourite car at the world expo in Montreal. Never built or Sold in North America. The called it the Alfa Romeo Montreal. Never even sold in North America.
  • RHD Nice little car. Give it comfortable seats, price it very competitively and leave the Alfa Romeo script on the grille. We need a smaller, cheaper electric car, and this could be just the thing to bring AR back. Heck, rebrand a variant as a Chrysler, so that potential buyers actually have something to look at in the showroom. Give it a nice long warranty. The wheels are great, hopefully the rest of it will follow through.