2016 Smart Fortwo Review - Honey, I Shrunk The Car [Video]
2016 Smart Fortwo
America loves big cars, big trucks and fat crossovers. If you doubt me, all you need to do is look at 2015’s top sellers. The top five vehicles account for 13 percent of all vehicles sold in the USA this year, and the smallest of the five is the Toyota Camry. Not so small. Check the top 20 list, and the smallest entry is the Corolla which has grown so large we would have called it “midsized” in the ’80s.
Today, we’re looking at a very different kind of car: the 2016 smart fortwo (yes, that’s all lower case for some reason), a car that is six feet shorter than the Corolla.
2008 was Smart’s best year in the USA with some 24,000 cheeky micro cars sold. Since then, sales haven’t been swift. Yearly sales numbers in the USA bounce between 5,000 and 14,000. Canadians, however, seem to love them. Sales volumes in the Great White North hover around half the US volume. Not impressed? The entire Canadian market’s sales numbers are “smart-sized” compared to the United States. Heck, Smart outsells Maserati in Canada. Could it be that, like nationalized healthcare, the Canadians are up to something good? Or, just like healthcare, is this a good idea somewhere else, just not in the USA?
The concept of the teeny two-seater started in the 1970s with Swatch wanting to build a car. Yes, the watch people wanted to build a car. After a brief flirtation with Volkswagen, the concept ended up at Mercedes’ door in the mid ’90s as a joint venture. After creating a tiny car, some questionable variants, and a Euro-hoard of fans, Mercedes took total control of the brand entirely. In case you’re wondering, Smart supposedly derives from “Swatch Mercedes ART“.
Since acquisitions haven’t always worked out well for Mercedes, and lilliputian 2-doors are a small segment, the Germans teamed up with Renault to overhaul their teensy transport. This means the new Fortwo shares little more than design cues with the outgoing model and a “whole lot” with the Renault Twingo and the larger (and Euro-only) Smart Forfour. Just as a matter of trivia, the car is made in Smartville, a factory in Hambach, France that was made specifically for Smart construction. For some reason the “S” in Smartville is a capital “S”. Go figure.
From the outset, the Smart Fortwo has had an uphill battle in America due to its diminutive dimensions. How small are we talking? At 106.1-inches long, the entire length is shorter than the wheelbase of a Corolla. Think your Mini Cooper is small? The Fortwo is four feet shorter, or about the same length as a big go-kart. For reference, my first new car was a Chrysler LHS that was nearly twice as long. Over the course of a week, my neighbor dubbed the Fortwo a “pregnant rollerskate.”
If there’s one thing we’ve discovered over the years, it’s that Americans don’t value small. Unlike other countries, we buy based on our perceived maximum load instead of buying based on the 95th percentile occupancy and renting the other 5 percent. If you daily commute in a Chevy Suburban you bought for those occasional weekends when the grandparents visit, this is you.
While my normal commute along rural roads and suburban sprawl isn’t the target for the Fortwo, I spent a few days in San Francisco and immediately understood. While you still can’t perpendicular park the Smart legally, I quizzed a San Francisco meter maid on the matter. Her response: “I’ve seen it and I haven’t ticketed them as long as they didn’t stick out more than the other cars.” Even if you don’t want to risk the ticket, the Fortwo can make circles on your average suburban street with cars parallel parked on both sides thanks to a turning circle of just 22.4 feet. That’s only marginally bigger than two Midwestern-strip-mall parking spaces.
The exterior of the Fortwo is a slave to Mercedes’ target dimensions. The front end is flat and broad giving the Smart an almost “pug-nosed” appearance and the rear is more vertical than it appears in photos. In order to give the small car stability, the wheels are pushed to the corners, making the wheelbase to overall length ratio very different from anything else on the market.
Even stiffly starched German designers need an outlet for their creativity, which must be the source of the very un-Mercedes cabin. The dashboard, door inserts and the center of the seats are covered in a woven synthetic fabric that looks like the same material of my cross trainers. Smart matches the fabric color to the body panel color on the outside in the majority of models, giving the interior and exterior a two-tone vibe. Lower end trims skip the tachometer and clock “pod” you see in the picture above, which rotates along a vertical axis — so the motorcyclist in the lane next to you can check the time.
Unlike the now-dead Scion iQ, the Smart Fortwo is a strict two-seater; on the bright side, Germans aren’t small people so the Fortwo was designed with six-foot-five folks in mind. The front seats are surprisingly upright in design and headroom is generous. American-sized folks will be happy to hear Daimler engineers added four inches of width to the new cabin.
Even though the engine is under the rear cargo area, total cargo space is more generous than I expected. My usual luggage companions, a 24-inch roller bag (U.S. domestic carry-on-max) and 26-inch roller bag (the smallest of the enforced checked luggage on this side of the pond) actually fit behind the seats without issue. With both seats all the way back in their tracks, the cargo hold measures in at 7.8 cubic feet. Thanks to the shape, this cargo area is more useful than what you find behind the Kia Sorento’s third row for actual luggage. Access to cargo area is handled via a glass lift gate or the fold-down tailgate. This allows for a lightweight tailgate party for two French models. (The weight limit is 220 lb.) Need to stuff a bodyboard inside? The front passenger seat folds nearly flat allowing six-foot long items in the cabin.
Displacing just 9/10ths of a liter, the Fortwo’s three-cylinder engine is turbocharged by default and cranks out 89 horsepower and 100 lbs-ft of torque. As you may have guessed by now, it’s under the trunk making Smart and Porsche the only brands that sell rear engined cars in America. (The Alfa 4C is a mid-engine design.) Sending power to the rear is your choice of a five-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (think DSG).
Oddly enough, this engine wasn’t designed by Mercedes or Renault directly, but by Renault low-cost subsidiary Dacia. In Europe you’ll find nearly the same engine powering the Dacia Sandero, the very same Dacia frequently lampooned on Top Gear. While not as smooth as the 1.0-liter Ecoboost three-banger in the Fiesta, this Romanian/French/German engine is smoother than BMW’s 1.5-liter triple in the Mini Cooper.
You should probably know that in late 2007 I put a deposit down on a Fortwo Cabrio. Gas prices in the San Francisco Bay Area were climbing rapidly and I had memories of a diesel Smart I drove in Europe with a funky one-off manual conversion, so I put $99 down and waited. After many weeks, a U.S.-spec Smart arrived for a test drive. I asked for my $99 back. The size of the car wasn’t the problem, nor was the price tag. The main reason I walked away was the transmission. It shifted like a drunk 14 year old that had never driven a stick before. Starts were rough and late, gear shifts took a small eternity, and on steep grades the transmission would occasionally change its mind mid-shift and go back to the lower gear. The experience was so maddening that the dealer was telling people to shift manually instead of letting the electronics do the work. The 2016 model is night-and-day different. The new six-speed dual-clutch unit is now on par with Volkswagen’s dry-clutch DSG in terms of smoothness, although launches in first gear are a hair slower.
With just under 90 ponies under the hood, acceleration t0 60 takes 10.3 seconds with the DCT and a hair less with the manual since the computer doesn’t like to slip the clutch much in first. That represents a significant improvement over the last generation and is right in line with entries like the Prius C. What the number doesn’t communicate is the mid-range power the small engine cranks out. Thanks to the generous torque, the Smart has no problem hill climbing in fifth or sixth gear.
When it comes to dynamics, the Fortwo has something in common with the Porsche 911 and the Alfa Romeo 4C: weight distribution. With a majority of its pounds over the rear axle and staggered tires (185/60R15 rear and 165/65R15 up front), the front feels light and willing to turn. Speaking of turning, the front wheels contort to nearly a 45-degree angle allowing an insanely small 24 foot turning circle. Although power steering is now standard, there’s the faintest hint of steering feedback. The Fortwo is — dare I say it — fun to drive on a winding mountain road. Out on the open highway, the refinement in this generation is immediately obvious. The last generation Fortwo felt “twitchy” on the highway, but thanks to better steering programming and an extra four inches of width, the smart feels much more stable when being passed by large trucks and SUVs.
When you start pushing the Smart on the highway, you’ll discover that this suspension is perfectly suited to the small car. With a wheelbase this short you do get some interesting body motions on washboard pavement, but it’s far more civilized than I expected. Although the rear suspension is not an independent design, it is not a solid live axle either. The reason for the “de Dion tube” design is that it allows the engine to be “sprung weight” while deliberately retaining the dynamics and packaging efficiency of a solid rear axle.
Push the smart farther than 8/10ths and you’ll quickly realize that Mercedes programmed the stability to intervene early and aggressively. It’s a pity because there is a spark in this chassis that really wants to dance. Sadly, the stability control is operable at essentially all speeds and will even cut engine power when the wheels are at full lock. This means you can’t get too crazy in the parking lot with that 45-degree front tire angle — and forget Smart-drifting.
At 36 mpg combined with the six-speed DCT, the Fortwo’s fuel economy hasn’t changed appreciably since 2008. With a heavy right foot, I averaged 34 mpg during my week. That means the Smart is less efficient than a Toyota Yaris or Scion iA and about the same as a Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta SFE or Honda Civic. A big part of the reason is aerodynamics: the short and blocky design simply takes more effort to push through the air than the wedge shape of the Toyota Prius. Another thing worth mentioning is the Fortwo still has an appetite for premium gasoline. If you were looking for a small car to “save on gas,” you’ll need to look elsewhere.
I hadn’t expected to bond with the Fortwo during my week, given my history with the last Smart. However, after a week with the wee rollerskate, I have to say that driving it made me smile. I also expected to insert a quip about the Scion iQ being a smarter buy than a Smart. Then I discovered that Toyota killed the iQ. This means that the kind of driving experience you get in the 2016 fortwo can only be found at the Smart dealer — or your local indoor go-kart joint.
Speaking of karts, if you think your Mini drives like a go-kart, you need to try one of these. With your rump nearly on the rear axle, the engine in the back, a turning radius some go-karts would be jealous of, and rear-wheel drive, you can tell the fortwo would be a hoot without stability control. I want to see someone start an indoor Smart-karting series with these babies.
The greatest problem with the fortwo is that most Americans think small equals cheap and, in general, Americans aren’t fans of small. Priced from $16,650 to around $20,000 for the gasoline model, you can buy a variety of four and five seat vehicles with similar or better mileage for the same or less. Why isn’t it the Smart cheaper? Put simply, building a smaller car may save on materials, but the rest of the cost structure invariably becomes more expensive. With a high quantity of unique parts, fabrication in Europe and the need for a high percentage of strong steel for crash safety, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Versa can be made for 30-percent less. That means the Smart Fortwo is, and will remain, a niche car. It’s a graceful landing, in a teeny-tiny plane, at a ginormous airport. Unlike Europe, there are few places in the USA that “need” the Smart. New Yorkers and folks in San Francisco that want a quirky small car with go-kart driving dynamics will love the Fortwo. The rest of America is likely to pass it over for a Honda Fit or Toyota Prius.
Dear Mercedes, if you bring back a roadster, program the stability control to let its hair down and crank up the boost to 150 ponies, I’ll put another deposit down on a Smart AMG. It won’t be any more practical, but it’d be a heck of a lot of fun. Oh, and think about that Smart-kart series…
Smart (Mercedes-Benz) provided the vehicle and insurance for this review
Specifications as tested
0-30: 3.5 Seconds
0-60: 10.3 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 17.4 Seconds @ 83 MPH
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I love all the "this isn't for most Americans so why bother" snark. As most Americans buy a full sized truck or a Camry then I guess we needn't bother selling Miata's, Boxsters, and cars like this. Pretty sure it outsells brownmanualdieselwagons but nobody complains about them.
>>Put simply, building a smaller car may save on materials, but the rest of the cost structure invariably becomes more expensive.