I’ll be the first to admit that I’m really not the most objective person to be writing about the new 2016 Smart ForTwo. That’s not because of any loyalty to the company, but rather an innate fondness of the type of car: a rear-engined, small economy car. Decades ago, these were once everywhere, and now, in the U.S. at least, there’s only the Smart. Is it a worthy survivor?

It’s amazing how popular this layout once was for as rare as it is today. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s you could buy rear-engined, cheap cars from Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat, Simca, Subaru, Suzuki, Mazda, NSU, SEAT, Skoda, Zaporozets, Hillman, and even Chevrolet. Before the dominance of transverse FWD cars, a rear-engine/rear drive car was a real option. Today, if your only criteria was that you wanted to buy a new car with the engine safely tucked away behind the rear axle, your American options are either a Porsche 911 or this car, the Smart ForTwo.

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The first and most important thing to know about the 2016 Smart is that, yes, it’s way better than the previous generation, which, admittedly, isn’t the highest bar to clear. But it is cleared, and cleared with room to spare.

The new Smart knows the job it has to do, and it’s designed to do that job well. It’s reluctant if you try and push it beyond that, but I feel like there’s potential here to be and do more that’s being frustratingly held at bay. I’ll get into what I mean in a bit.

This is an entirely new car compared to the last-gen Smart because it’s actually a Renault. The new Smart is the brother of the Renault Twingo. The cars share the same engine/drivetrain and are the same all the way to the body-in-white stage. The interior, body panels, Tridon safety cell, and the tuning/electronics/etc are unique to Smart, but the bones and guts are shared with their French frère.

The new Smart ForTwo is the same overall length, 8.8 feet long, but it’s now 4” wider, which does a few things: the extra track makes the car more stable and handle better, it gives more room in the interior, and it allows for larger wheel wells up front which means that the front wheels can turn to a 45° angle, which in turn allows for a truly amazing turning circle of 22.8 feet.

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That’s an even smaller turning circle than the widely-accepted master of tight turning circles, the legendary London Black Cab, which has a 25 foot turning circle. It’s seriously impressive and in city environments, really quite handy. Plus, it’s fun to watch:

Now, if you’re an idiot like myself, you’re probably seeing that and thinking “Hey, I bet it’d be fun to crank the wheel and jam on the gas and do some really tight, nausea-inducing donuts!” As a career idiot, I of course thought that, but when I tried to give it a go I found that the car wouldn’t rev past 2,000 RPM. Same with attempting a neutral-drop in the automatic — the car wouldn’t rev past 2,000 RPM in neutral, either.

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In fact, when the wheel angle is cranked high enough, the car will throttle back. Too much slip, and it throttles back, anything approaching oversteer is managed and smoothed out into bland neutrality, and you can feel these busy robots stopping your stupid-but-fun decisions over and over again.

And, of course I understand why — it all makes total sense. This is a city car, and it’s designed to be easy to drive. But the chassis, she’s by nature something of an animal. Insanely short wheelbase, all the weight at the rear, reasonable power (89 horsepower — for the weight, it’s fine), very light and direct steering with gobs of wheel angle available — all these things together mean that without all those robo-nannies, putting this car into a rapid, tight spin would be wildly easy.

It’s like the car is a Cirque du Soleil-trained contortionist and acrobat who’s been subsequently trained to be a competent orthodontist. There’s a somber, strict, and rational brain fighting with a body made to do some very weird things. You feel this as you drive, and the sensation is odd. I’ve never been quite as aware of how much work a car is doing to keep me out of trouble than I was in the Smart.

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Again — of course Smart does this and of course it makes sense, and of course there’s no way to turn it off. I get that. But that doesn’t mean I’m not wildly curious to know how this thing would feel in a more raw, uncontrolled state. Dangerous? Probably. Terrifying? Likely? Entertaining? Oh, I imagine so.

Okay. Let’s break this down into some categories here.

Exterior

Of course, a car like this isn’t for everyone, but I think Smart’s done quite a good job here. It’s less blobular than the previous travel-pod, gaining a bit of a blunt snout and bolder lights and details. It’s cute, but in a sort of scrappy, plucky way — it feels a little bit like a giant bulldog or a pug or something.

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The relationship of the wheels to the body is actually pretty large, so it has a sort of athletic stance. The face is cute, but has a bit of a playful growl or grimace about it — it’s smiling, but it’s the kind of smile a toddler gives you seconds before head-butting you in the gut. It looks ready to tussle, in a fun way. It’s a good look for a car like this, which needs to combine confidence without taking itself too seriously.

The contrasting color of the Tridion safety cell usually works to good effect on the new Smart, and all the main body panels are plastic, highly deformable/reformable on impact, and easily swapped out. If you wanted a harlequin Smart with all different colored body panels, that could probably be done in an afternoon.

It is available in some good, fun colors as well, and I think anyone who buys one of these in just silver or something boring like that is doing themselves, and the vision-having world, a disservice. There’s no need to be afraid of color, especially in a car like this.

Interior

It’s clear a lot of thought and attention went into the interior design and layout of the Smart, which is good, since most owners will prefer to do their driving from inside the car. For such a small volume of space, the Smart designers have done a pretty good job of making the interior feel comfortable and non-claustrophobic. Really, it doesn’t feel any smaller than any compact car from the front seats. The greenhouse is pretty tall and glassy, which keeps things feeling airy, and with the optional glass roof panel you can easily forget you’re wedged into what’s essentially a giant shoe.

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The materials aren’t premium, because, come on, but clever material decisions have been made and the result is an interior that, while inexpensive, doesn’t feel cheap. The cloth covering on the dash is a welcome change from the usual Playskool plastics, and the quirky dash design is novel enough to avoid feeling boring.

The vents are these fun little orbs that I’m looking forward to finding in junkyards in 20 years or so, the radio is mounted on an odd little horizontal pedestal, the climate control uses a novel little magnifying lens slider, and the tach/clock assembly is bafflingly mounted on a swivel base, so if you really wanted to show the guy next to you at a stoplight you’re idling at 1200 RPM, you could.

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The overall effect works, and they’ve managed to make a cheap car’s dash that isn’t painfully boring.

The biggest annoyance in the interior has to do with the twin sunglass holders mounted above the door, where a grab handle is usually located on most cars. I’m told by an inside source that these are sunglasses holders instead of grab handles for side-impact crash reasons — you’ll hurt your head less by whacking it into a sunglasses holder than a grab handle, it seems.

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That’s great, but it’s almost impossible to tell your cerebellum that. I must have grabbed that stupid sunglass holder thinking it was a grab handle a dozen times while a passenger. There’s a lot of muscle memory associated with that handle location, and it doesn’t care what the side-impact crash results are. It’s just annoyed.

Practicality

For a stumpy two-person city car, the Smart is surprisingly good at holding stuff. The cargo area in the rear, over the engine can hold about 12 cubic feet of your crap, if stacked to the ceiling. Stacked so everything fits under the cargo cover, it’s nine cubic feet, and with the passenger seat folded, you can slide in a five-foot-long party sub, possibly longer if you let it hang out the rear hatch.

The tailgate is divided in two: the upper window opens like a hatch, and the lower half drops like a tailgate. That tailgate can support about 220 lbs or so, so you can sit on it, and inside it opens to reveal a bit of enclosed cargo room. There’s a bit of storage behind the seats as well, and a nifty little drawer in the passenger’s footwell.

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That’s all great, and it is quite usable, holding my luggage and a driving partner with no trouble, but if you’re like me, one of the things a rear-engined car should strive to have is some sort of front trunk. Or, as Tesla calls theirs, a frunk. Personally, I don’t even mind if the front trunk is barely usable — the effort taken to make it happen I think is a great indicator of the dedication of the design team, because often, it’s not an easy challenge.

That’s why I’m a little pissed the Smart team didn’t try harder to get some sort of trunk here. Sure, there’s fluid reservoirs and a battery and radiators and condensers and fans, but I still believe a really determined packaging team could have managed something.

In fact, to prove my point, when I drove the car back to the airport, I folded up my hoodie and made a goddamn front trunk in there, using a decent volume of space above the battery. And after driving a good 45 minutes, you know what? It was fine. Nothing got sucked into the fans, nothing overheated, all was fine. Just a little bit of shuffling and a little plastic box in there could make a trunk that could hold at least a reasonable-sized laptop bag or something. Any extra storage space is welcome in a car this small, and, besides, it would be an emotional victory, too.

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Well, at least to me.

Driving

It’s not punishing to drive the Smart around, and it’s almost fun, except that any time things start to get a little exciting, the everything-control robots step in and call the cops on the party, as discussed above. But, with that in mind, it’s not bad. The steering is incredibly light and nimble, the car is maneuverable in city traffic in a way almost nothing else is, and, for the most part, power is adequate.

By far the biggest improvement is in the gearboxes. Gone is the garbage sorta-auto of the past, replaced with the smallest 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox on the market and an honest, basic five-speed manual.

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The best you can say about the six-speed is that it’s pretty ignorable. That’s not totally a criticism, since that means it does its job just fine, but while it’s easy to drive and use (which is, of course, important for this car and its market) it does suck the guts out of the 898cc turbo three, which only has 89 guts (guts=horsepower here) to give.

This becomes apparent when you drive it back to back with the manual. Taking off in the auto means pushing down the gas, taking a momentary pause of reflection, and then the car decides to get moving. With the manual, in first gear, you can stomp that gas and take off immediately — you can even chirp the wheels for a tiny bit of rubber-burning or, more entertainingly, feel the car’s weight shift backwards dramatically as you feel like you’re doing a likely imperceptible wheelie.

The numbers only say that the acceleration improves a tiny bit with the manual (10.1 to 60 instead of 10.5) but it feels much more sprightly. It has 100 lb-ft of torque, which given everything, isn’t bad, and I don’t think, with a manual at least, the car felt all that slow.

The five-speed gearbox itself feels a bit dated, but it encourages you to get the most out of the little car, and it’s easily the one I’d want.

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It’s got a DeDion rear suspension (they were quick to point out that it’s like a Lotus 7 back there), but it is actually independent up front, with shocks and coil-overs. The robonannies will keep you from pushing it too hard, but the biggest driving/comfort issue has to do with the short wheelbase. Bumpy roads will make it pitch, and speed bumps, taken fast, are much more exciting than normal. These are the costs of being able to park nose-to-curb.

Driving Off-Road

Rear-engine/rear-drive cars are known for having good traction and off-roadability — that’s why there’s all those Baja Beetles and Class 11 Baja racers. So I figured the ForTwo may be decent at it as well. I told this to some Smart PR people:

Me: So, I think I’m going to take this off-road for a bit. See how it does.

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Smart PR: (smiles strained, urge to slap the idiot in front of them barely under control) Great! Yes, I’m sure it’ll be... great. (sweat beading on forehead; mild rage-quaking.)

So, I did. Just a little bit, nothing too aggressive — I didn’t want to ruin any wheels or plastic bumper caps. I took the Smart around over some dirt and grass, crested a grassy knoll or two, and found it did quite well. No slipping at all, really, even on thicker grass, and no trouble maneuvering. The ForTwo has wider tires in the rear than the front, so it’s a good combo of enough rubber on the ground to move, with smaller pizza-cutters up front to weave and maneuver with less turning resistance.

A raised Baja-style version of this on knobby tires could be a real blast. Especially if they exposed the engine a bit.

Servicing

On a car like this, engine access isn’t easy, but Smart has managed to put nearly all of the service bits where you can get to them. Battery, brakes, and cooling system stuff is up front, and at the rear, under six wingnuts, is that turbo three, laid mostly flat but exposing the oil filler and dipstick, air cleaner, and, as a German engineer told me, charmingly, you can access

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“... the three things you need to make the petrol explode.”

Those three things are not an iron will, a fifth of rum, and a smoldering log — he meant the spark plugs, which are right there.

Anything bigger than that, though, requires dropping the engine, and I have no idea how big a deal that actually is. Will I be able to do it when I pick up one of these in 2027? I really have no idea how serviceable this will be outside of a dealer down the road.

Toys/Gadgets

Smart took a step in the right direction with their phone integration cradle, but the beta version of their app that I tested needs some work. The navigation is hard to follow and a bit sloppy, not letting you know turns on time and somehow managing to always be a little confusing. You could use a more established map app, of course, and Smart does have some good stuff in their little app suite, like a special Smart-sized, crowdsourced parking spot finder.

The instrument cluster itself has a well-executed little LCD display that has some useful economy meters and whatnot, and you can even get heated seats, a backup camera, and a front collision warning system.

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There’s even a crosswind assist system that I believe is standard and comes from Mercedes’ Sprinter vans. With a tall, light car on a short wheelbase, this is one robot nanny that I’m happy to welcome aboard.

Value

The Smart ForTwo, starting at $14,650, is still one of the cheapest cars you can get in the U.S. It has some real competition, mostly, I think, from the Fiat 500 and base Fiesta, but the Spark, Fit and Mirage are also formidable. The Smart, with only two seats, is a little more limited, but that could be made up for by it’s extremely small size and ability to park in places pretty much nothing else can. In the right congested city, that’s a big deal.

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I still think the stretched four-door version of this they get everywhere else in the world would do well here, but there seems to be a good bit of expense with getting the B-pillar side-impact crash-rated, so chances are Mercedes is in no rush to make that happen. I do think it’s a better overall design, though. It’s basically like a nicer Tata Nano.

The gas mileage, as before isn’t quite what you hope it would be: 33 city and 39 highway, 36 combined. To its credit, even while driving it around hard and as idiotically as I could, I only saw the fuel gauge drop by one block, so that’s something.

The Deal

The new Smart ForTwo is way, way better than it was before. It’s still a very specific car for a very specific customer and environment, but I think it does its job well. I like the design, the interior is comfortable and usable, it’s tantalizingly and frustratingly close to something fun to drive (with the manual, at least), and it really doesn’t feel like a “cheap” car. Small, sure, basic, yep, but it’s not a penalty box.

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That said, once you start spec’ing it out, the price can get into the $18s or higher, and then the fundamental idea starts to get a little shaky, unless you’re in a really, really dense city.

I think a stripper one with some sort of at least partially-relaxed stability control system could be a surprisingly fun little kook-box to use as the basis of a one-car racing league or something. I don’t think anyone at Smart thinks that’s even remotely a good idea, but you know, that’s why they don’t pay me the big bucks.


Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.