Why a Smart car? That’s the question that still pops into the heads of many people walking by the 2016 Smart Fortwo eight years after it first went on sale in the U.S.
The thinking makes sense, why should your car be larger than you need it to be, especially when most commutes are done by one person carrying light luggage? The Smart Fortwo, then, is an exercise in purity of the car, giving you what you need and nothing you don’t.
But is it actually enough? I borrowed one for a week to find out if it makes any more sense in the suburbs now.
It’s certainly eye-catching, thanks to a bubblier styling theme that came with the Fortwo’s 2016 redesign. Smarts also feature distinctive color schemes thanks to the ability to mix plastic body panel colors with the metal surround of the car (the Tridion safety cell in Smart speak). The result on our test car was a fetching blue-and-white color scheme that was also echoed on the inside.
There are major improvements in the driving experience when compared with that of the old car, and the redesigned Smart really drives like a normal car now. Gone is the skittishness on highways and in passing maneuvers. Some of that comes from a very basic solution: adding more power. The new turbocharged 0.9-liter three-cylinder engine has 19 more horsepower and nearly twice as much torque as the outgoing engine. Better still, that power is more readily available, thanks to the turbo, which means you don’t have to downshift nearly as much when overtaking slower moving traffic.
Additional width and new crosswind mitigation software also keep the Smart more stable when it’s up against heavy gusts or a big truck. I’d say it’s just as stable as any other subcompact car on the market now.
Back on city streets, however, the more substantive Smart offers better relief from potholed pavement than before, also making the car smoother. Then there’s its new party trick, an ultra-tight turning circle that means you can do donuts just about everywhere. That allows you to take that tiny parking spot before you pass it, or get out of it when two SUVs think it’s funny to box you in.
There is good space inside for two adults, and the addition of a height-adjustable seat on some models makes it easier to find a good driving position. However, there is a noticeable lack of space for odds and ends – let alone big pieces of luggage. My friend’s large rolling suitcase wouldn’t fit at all in the cargo area because of the optional subwoofer in this car, but the space is also only good for a few grocery bags before you start impeding on rear visibility.
For a commuter car, you have to be OK with putting your phone in one of the two diminutive cup holders, or springing for an optional phone cradle that mounts in the radio. That cradle is also your only bet if you want some form of phone integration other than Bluetooth. This brand-new Smart feels behind the times in terms of infotainment, which is a big minus on a car obviously pitched to younger drivers.
Smarts don’t come cheap, blame Mercedes-Benz’s premium positioning for that. This top-line Proxy model didn’t have every option, but it came in at $20,570, which is enough to buy some really good compact cars. I’d immediately recommend a lower level Passion model that gets you aluminum wheels, but ditches the JBL audio system and leather seats. You can live without those in a commuter car.
You also have to factor in that the Smart isn’t as fuel efficient as one might hope, as city driving netted just 29 mpg if I was enjoying the turbocharged performance a little too much. Around 39 mpg was easily attained in combined city-highway driving, but it’s possible to get almost the same fuel economy in a large Kia Optima sedan. I’d recommend sticking with the standard five-speed manual, too, as a way to improve the value proposition over the $990 six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Or wait for the all-electric version that’s due next year.
So why a Smart car? If you live where parking is at a premium even for small cars, the Smart redeems itself with amazing maneuverability to get in and out of impossibly tight parking spaces, now with a good helping of torque to keep up with gutsy cab drivers. And in the suburbs, it’s far more civilized than before, with fewer things reminding you it’s nearly half the size of the three-row crossover behind you.
But for those who don’t have to put up with congested urban areas on a daily basis, it remains an eccentricity.