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Auto Review: Smart ForTwo

epb

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So I'm a week into Smart ownership and thought I'd post my impressions of the car. By way of introduction to those unfamiliar with them: the Smart Car was originally the concept for a city car by Swatch in the mid-90s, a car designed to fit the usage patterns of car owners in congested urban areas where parking is scarce, streets are narrow, speeds are relatively moderate, and the risk of incidental damage is high. They partnered with Daimler to make the car [Smart is S(watch) M(ercedes) ART], then bailed, but Mercedes-Benz continued and it launched in Europe in 1998. Though they've sold 700,000 of them, the Smart brand has never been profitable. The car was considered too small and underpowered for American tastes, but its success in Canada led to a reservation program in the US, where everyone interested in buying one paid $99 to place an order. The 30,000 reservations taken exceeded expectations and production capacity, and the car was given the go-ahead for US release. Currently, the wait is about 14 months for a new Smart, but the economy is whittling that down a bit. My car was one of many not picked up by its reservation holder, which is happening a lot lately thanks to the economy, so I was able to walk in off the street and buy one.

I'll say that the nay-sayers were right. Being single, living in Chicago on the north side where parking is legendarily bad and working in the Loop, I'm an almost ideal candidate for such a car. The majority, though, seem to be bought as a novelty by middle-aged single women and retirees in rural areas, and the reactions I get to driving it indicate that's its mostly seen as a rather large Beanie Baby.

That said, used as intended the car is indeed a work of genius. The small size and all-plastic body panels mean I can park it anywhere with impunity. The last time I street-parked a car in my area, I typically spent 20-30 minutes cruising for a spot somewhere within a half-mile radius and then had a cold and/or wet trudge home. With the Smart, I always find a spot on my street - always. (I've contacted the Vatican to see if this can be verified as a miracle.)

Its size also helps with the urban jungle that is Chicago - when my fellow citizens decide the best place to stop is in the middle of two lanes, when the Pepsi guy decides to unload by double-parking on a busy street during rush hour, I can still zip by. I also get to give cyclists in the bike lanes a wide berth while still in my own lane.

The interior is large and comfortable for its price-point. When someone tells me how small and cramped the Smart is, they reveal themselves as someone that's never sat in one. The interior dimensions are: 38" headroom, 43.5" legroom, with seats that are 17" wide. The current BMW 5-series front seats are 18" wide and offer 37.7" of head room and 41.5" of leg room, and we're always hearing how cramped and uncomfortable those are, right? I'm 6'1" and 200# and I've got room to spare. A buddy I work with is 6'4" and 270 and he was marveling at the head room. Apparently we were quite a comical sight exiting the car, though. And because the Smart is 50" tall, 2" higher than the 5-series, you're looking at surround traffic rather than door-handles and SUV tires like with most small cars (like my own Z4M Coupe).

Performance is decent within context - the car is tall, with a short wheelbase and 6" of ground clearance, putting out 70hp near the top of it's rev range. For putting around the city at legal speeds it is fine, and will even hustle a bit, but it's no corner carving sports car even when revved hard. I wouldn't call what happens at full throttle acceleration, which means you're speeding up. After all, 0-60 is over 13 seconds. What the Smart does is gradually go a little less slow than previously. Once at speed, like 60 mph, it feels fine, not jittery or unstable. High winds off Lake Shore Drive will nudge it a bit, though I've heard that can be countered with lowering springs and using front tires as wide as the rear, with the added benefit that you can rotate them.

The transmission is often criticized, but it's actually pretty good. The car uses a 5-speed manual, but rather than a clutch pedal it copies BMW's low-end SMG variant - SSG, used on the later E46 3-series and early Z4 roadsters - and has a computer engage the clutch. The weakness of such systems is always the same - they are fine when you drive the car like a manual, and suck when you delegate things to the computer and drive them in automatic mode. Without a torque converter to smooth things out, or a human modulating throttle input, you get a herky-jerky ride. Everyone knows this about such systems.

Unfortunately, Daimler chose to re-package the system for the US, and instead of the N/R and +/- layout indicating Neutral, Reverse, and upshift/downshift used in Europe, we got the traditional PRND layout. So people treat the manual like an automatic, leave it in drive, and you get herky-jerky shifts from the computer. The layout alters expectations to levels that the transmission wasn't built to meet, leading to unhappiness. But I have to agree with them that if they'd told everyone it only came in manual, lots fewer people in the US would have ordered one since apparently the Pilgrims came here to flee religious persecution and manual transmissions, and while we're accepting of different religions here, we still see shifting as communion with the devil.

Daimler could have tried to explain how the gearbox works, but everyone's eyes would have just glazed over. I think BMW only offered the SSG for 2-3 years before giving up on us.

Moving the shifter over to manual mode, I can drive the car much more smoothly than my M Coupe, because what the computer lacks in feel and sensitivity it makes up for in consistency - it takes the same amount of time to clutch every time, never snagging its shoe on a bit of carpet or slipping off the edge of the pedal due to snow or rain on its sole. I manage the throttle, it handles the clutch, and away we go. Why reviewers can't figure this out, I'll never know - I had my technique down by the end of the test drive, to the point that the salesman asked "How are you doing that?"

Even in manual mode, I do well on fuel. I'm averaging 40mpg in all city driving, about triple what my M Coupe does in the city, and since the Bimmer takes premium as well I don't mind that the Smart does, though that's odd since the car was designed to be cheap to run. An oil change only takes 3 quarts, though. A Smart owner on the forums recently had a fender-bender and dented the front. The entire front section of the car, fenders and valance, is one part - $198. There's no paint-work to do, the non-metallic shades are dyed plastic with a clearcoat - you just remove the damaged part and put on another. The entire body of a Smart can be replaced for $799 MSRP, and while the dealer will do the job, anyone with a Torx screwdriver set can do it in an hour or two. Some people buy different colors and change them out for the hell of it, others trade panels when they tire of their color. Beats taking a roller to it. Lots of people remove and paint the panels custom colors, though, including the inevitable matte black.

The car is fine for the average person's cargo needs. There are cubbies next to the steering wheel and on the doors, a glove box, and a bin inside the rear hatch door, in addition to the trunk space. These are all bare plastic though, and things can get rattle-y. If you need more space than the trunk, the passenger seat folds flat. The car is an Ikea shopper's wet dream.

As for the other features, there aren't many. I bought the Pure, which is the base model starting at $12,000 with cloth seats, but mine has the options of power steering, air conditioning, and a radio/CD player. (I wasn't too picky about the spec because I went in planning to change it.) The cloth on the doors and dash is more ghastly than the photos make it look. My plan is to go old-school German car and replace the cloth with a black/white herringbone with black leather trim. The wheel covers are ugly as sin and I've removed them - the steelies look nicer uncovered, functional and purposeful. New wheels might still be in the offing. Overall, I'm pleased with it. I bought it for urban commuting, and its very good at that job.

I'm purposely not discussing the safety issue. It's safer than some things, it's less safe than others, which applies to life in general. Accept that. I have, but if anyone is really worried about me they can Paypal me $13,000 for the Smart and I'll get something they recommend. No takers?
 

B1FF

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You forgot to rate the quality of the gay sex, which comes as a standard feature with each Smart.
 

kwilkinson

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LOL epb, are you the Smartcar I saw going down Irving Park Rd the other day? I assume it was you, since there is only one in the city.
 

DNW

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Originally Posted by edmorel
You should have stuck your penis out and tripped the car.
fixed. OP: Thanks for the review anyway. Don't mind these gheyhaters.
 

epb

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Originally Posted by kwilkinson
LOL epb, are you the Smartcar I saw going down Irving Park Rd the other day? I assume it was you, since there is only one in the city.

More than likely that was me - I live in the area. This is mine:
 

Xericx

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Rather get a Honda Fit.
 

JayJay

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I enjoyed reading the review. It doesn't meet my needs for the type of driving I do in these parts, but seems as though it would be ideal in metro areas like Chicago.
 

Big A

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I'll be interested in the post-collision-with-a-beer-truck review. If you are still alive, let us know how the car held up
 

turboman808

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If I lived in a big city and didn't care what I drove I might have one of those. It's cheap and easy to get around in.

But I do care what I own so would never buy one. I did rent one in London when they first came out. It was fun at the time and a real novelty.
 

DNW

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Originally Posted by epb
More than likely that was me - I live in the area. This is mine:


Serious question: what can this car do that the Mini can't? At least the Mini is more fun to drive.
 

epb

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Originally Posted by Big A
I'll be interested in the post-collision-with-a-beer-truck review. If you are still alive, let us know how the car held up

The Smart would do as well as a Mini, Fit, or Yaris, better than a Harley that cost more than all of them, perhaps as well as a Lotus Elise or Exige, much better than the 1984 Chevette chuntering along a month ago.

Originally Posted by DarkNWorn
Serious question: what can this car do that the Mini can't? At least the Mini is more fun to drive.

The Mini is a fun car, and I looked at them. For the new price of a Smart Pure, the newest Mini I'd get would be well out of warranty at 6 or 7 years old. The Mini would be more expensive to maintain and run (the Smart gets better mileage, an oil change is 3 quarts or so). The Smart can can be parked in spaces even the Mini won't fit - it's more than 3 feet shorter. For two people, the Smart has a bit more room and is easier to get in and out of as it's taller.

Guys, nothing will beat the Smart as a city car in the US because we don't get any others. When/if we get the Fiat 500/Panda or Ford Ka, let the debates begin. Comparing the Smart to regular cars is like comparing it to a Vespa or E-350 - they're made to serve different purposes. Taken as it is and looking at it solely for how well it performs in its only little niche, it does pretty good.
 

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