2008 Smart Fortwo: First U.S. Drive

Illustration for article titled 2008 Smart Fortwo: First U.S. Drive

The 2008 Smart Fortwo is burdened with preconceived notions like no car before it. It's not safe. You can't drive it on the highway. It's too small for super sized Americans. It's Green. It's gay. The car was launched in Europe in 1998, so Americans have had a decade to develop these assumptions. Until now, few have driven it, and never on American soil. Yesterday, we did.


On Monday, we got a call from our friend Nick, who - thanks to a Blackberry and a spirit of adventure - is the first U.S. customer to take delivery of his very own Smart. The company even gave him a plaque to commemorate the occasion. It credits him in part with, "Initiating a revolutionary change in the way Americans think about transportation."

We do need to change the way we think about the Smart. It is safe. Mercedes developed the original version with the goal of making it as safe as their E-class. Bookended by crumple zones, a steel roll cage surrounds the occupants. Not only does that cage resist deformation in even the most severe impacts, in a crash it will actually activate the crumple zones on larger cars, using their in-built protection to cushion the Smart's occupants, too. It also comes with the full retinue of airbags.

It feels safe, too. The size defines the driving experience, but not in the way you might expect. Rather than feeling intimidated in traffic, you feel empowered. Gone is the need to take responsibility for an acre of SUV on a crowded road. Present is the freedom to move down that crowded road as you see fit. Congested urban streets and crowded highways stop feeling claustrophobic and start feeling easy. It's quick to turn, yet feels more stable than most vehicles twice its size.

It's not too small inside. I'm 6'2" and I couldn't reach the steering wheel with the driver's seat all the way back. Compare it to the front cabin of big SUVs like, say, GM's Yukon / Escalade / Tahoe and the Smart is positively spacious, thanks to it's airy design and upright seats.

It's not Green. The problem is, the Smart isn't that smart. The 1-liter, 70bhp engine has to work hard, so it only averages about 38mpg. Less if you drive fast. In Detroit, Mercedes showed off something they called the Micro Hybrid. It wasn't a hybrid at all, but switched itself off below 5mph, resulting in urban fuel consumption of 58mpg. The Smart desperately needs that technology, or a least a diesel engine.

It's not gay either. Sure, if you live in a doublewide and think Budweiser is the height of sophistication, then the Smart probably doesn't fit your Trans-Am ideal of what a manly car should be. But neither does it carry the level of campness of say, a Volkswagen Beetle. Rather, in traffic, the Smart's driver looks, well, smart.


So the Smart is a more complete, practical car than most people assume it to be - but that's also its biggest problem. Most people who stop to ask what it is think it's electric or at least a hybrid. It isn't. Neither is it cheap. The Fortwo Passion Cabriolet pictured here costs $18,500. It'll still get caught in traffic jams. Look at the Smart as a practical car that's easier to use in an urban environment than anything else, and you'll be happy. Look at it as fundamentally altering the way Americans think about transportation though, and you'll be disappointed.


Ash78, voting early and often

I've been following the company since its inception, thanks in part to Business School case studies and my ongoing interest in auto innovations.

But to me, THE key part of the business model has almost completely faded away. This car was envisioned with endless amounts of dealer-installed options that would allow for a limitless amount of customization. The colored body panels snap on and off, so you could change the color like a cellphone's faceplate. There was even talk of modular transmissions at one point, allowing owners to "upgrade" from manual to auto tranny later on. This was supposed to be the car that lit a fire under the asses of the traditional auto distribution model.

It can take up half a parking spot, but what cop will allow you to park two under a single meter? You can go two-wide in lanes, like motorcycles. It's all the expense and inefficiency of a small car, with even less storage space.

I don't wish failure on this car; I just think it's 8-10 years too late coming to the US.