Image credit: Kristen Lee

The 2016 Smart ForTwo Cabriolet Is Great At Exactly Two Things

Image credit: Kristen Lee
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The Smart ForTwo Cabriolet is, not shockingly, a Smart ForTwo with a retractable cloth top. It’s intended for hip urbanites who also want to put the top down on nice days and let the city filter in. While that’s a nice idea, sometimes cities smell like hot garbage. And also, the Smart ForTwo Cabrio is only good at about two things total: parking and turning.

(Full disclosure: Smart wanted me to drive the Smart ForTwo Cabriolet so badly that it fed me breakfast and lunch at a highrise hotel in Williamsburg and let me spend all day driving around Brooklyn as I pleased.)

For the ForTwo Cabrio launch, Smart/Mercedes-Benz mapped out a day trip for us journalists in Brooklyn so that we could experience the car in the element it was intended for: the city. It was a brave move on their part, because New York City is notoriously not fun or easy to drive in.

Image credit: Kristen Lee
Image credit: Kristen Lee

Each of our cars was equipped with a GPS smartphone (nicely integrated into the car’s existing nav/infotainment system) that led us on a preset route through the enormous borough of Brooklyn. And experience Brooklyn we did! We scurried through neighborhoods, tackled the hateful Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and even jousted with the Belt Parkway down to Coney Island. Potholes that a normal car would have just swallowed without any drama were catastrophic on the ForTwo’s tiny wheels and brittle-feeling bird bones. Hit a dip and it sounded like something had broken.

Take In The Sights, The Sounds, The Smells

The Cabrio is no different from the Coupe except that its roof retracts. It will do so in 12 seconds with a button press at whatever speed you’re moving at, so if suddenly the winds change and wafts of urine- and fecal matter-stained city air occupy your face space, you can just close it up. You can also remove the roof bars and store them in a compartment in the trunk, but then that takes a huge chunk out of the existing storage space, so I can’t see much of a compromise happening there.

Your author making sure the car didn’t cross any lines it wasn’t supposed to. Image credit: Smart
Your author making sure the car didn’t cross any lines it wasn’t supposed to. Image credit: Smart

Smart was keen on demonstrating the cars’ parking and turning prowess during the launch, and those were the two things that were most impressive about it. You can park a ForTwo just about anywhere, even head-in in some parallel spaces, because it’s only 8.8 feet long from nose to tail.

You know how sometimes you’re driving up and down the street, huntin’ for that spot, see one and keep driving in disappointment because it’s too small for your car by about two feet? The ForTwo effectively eliminates most feelings of parking angst because it’s so compact.

And can the thing turn! It turns tighter than a figure skater, with a 22.8-ft turning circle. As it should, since the engine is located in the back and there’s virtually nothing between the front wheels. My driving partner and I pulled some maneuvers of questionable legality during our drive, which involved a few spontaneous U-turns. It was fun!

It Is Surprisingly Fun, For A Little While

In fact, if you’ve never driven a Smart car before, especially the new ones, they are quite fun. It’s a real novelty to be able to dart in and out of spaces that you’d be nervous to tackle in your own car. The sharp turning is great for scooting the car around obstacles and because the overhangs are so short, nailing that parallel parking job in one go is particularly satisfying.

That said, 45 minutes is about the maximum amount of time that you can have fun in a Smart car. After that, things drop off rather quickly and reality hits you like a street sweeper.

Image credit: Kristen Lee
Image credit: Kristen Lee

With the novelty gone, I was fully able to appreciate what a good decision to host this launch in New York City actually was. Bad smells and shitty road quality are the reality of city life.

It has an 89-HP, 100 lb-ft of torque, turbocharged three-cylinder engine. It comes with either a five-speed manual or a six-speed DCT gearbox, which is the version we had on hand to drive. On top of that, the ForTwo Cabrio is a nearly $20,000 car that feels more like a Power Wheels toy than a real one.

Go Go Smart Car

For your information, I drive like an asshole. It’s what learning to drive in New Jersey and then moving to New York City has done to me. In fact, it’s kind of how you need to drive in New York City in order to get anywhere. There is a lot of snap decision-making involved. If you see a gap open up, you take it. That is where problems arose.

Between what felt like a perpetually confused gearbox, a tiny engine, low power and turbo lag, the Cabrio offered up little to no motion when I pressed the pedal from a rolling low speed.

I would press it and increase pressure to the point of flooring it, the car would read War and Peace, write a dissertation and then lazily decide to move across the face of the earth. It was infuriating. We screamed at it. I wish that I had a chance to try out the manual instead, because at least there I wouldn’t have to deal with the DCT.

Image credit: Kristen Lee
Image credit: Kristen Lee

While idling at a stoplight, the whole car vibrates. I know the engine is located right behind the passenger cabin, but this car costs more than any normal economobile like, say, a Nissan Versa, and that sure doesn’t shake like a wet dog at idle.

Pulling onto a highway can be harrowing because of how little power you have to merge, though once you get there, road and wind noise aren’t terrible.

I had no complaints about the interior of the car. It was quite airy and provided ample legroom. But alas, I am short. I might not be the best judge of good legroom. The visibility was good, especially through the tall windshield. Not stellar out the back, because the soft top blocks a lot of what you can see, both while up and down. The HVAC system was controlled via dials (love dials), the controls minimalist and simple.

Image credit: Kristen Lee
Image credit: Kristen Lee

There was also the issue of image. In my mind’s eye, a Smart car is usually painted over with advertisements for laundromats, catering companies or florists. I associate it with a rolling billboard, and that’s not necessarily the image I would want to own.

The Verdict

Mercedes is aware that people who buy ForTwos are making a very explicit decision to do so. Nobody “accidentally” buys one of these things, because there are cars that are way cheaper with way more space and more power readily available.

The target demographic are urban dwellers who have a household income of about $100,000, we were told in a presentation. But those urban dwellers also can’t have any kids or a large pet, because a ForTwo won’t fit anything more than two people and some light weekend luggage.

Image credit: Kristen Lee
Image credit: Kristen Lee

I’m actually more excited for the electric Smart ForTwo, which will be available next spring. I anticipate that an electric motor will eliminate the frustrating lack of low-end power and the meek DCT.

In all seriousness, what is stopping Smart from bumping out the engine compartment slightly and fitting a more potent cylinder in there? A Hayabusa motor, maybe, like all those crazy tuners do. You’d add a little bit of overall length, but I would think the extra power would be well worth it.

I have a radical suggestion. In a city car, keep the ForTwo’s shape and turning radius and engine placement, because those are fine. But instead of a five- or six-speed transmission, give it three gears max, each geared real tall, with a super beefy clutch. I’d love to test out something like that.

Lined up like bumper cars at the fair. Image credit: Kristen Lee
Lined up like bumper cars at the fair. Image credit: Kristen Lee

Following that logic, then, the ForTwo Cabrio is not really a “car” in my eyes—it’s more of an accessory. An accessory is something that more or less functions as an add-on to the rest of your getup. For the most part, the Cabrio cars pretty poorly.

Yet, I supposed I can see the logic in that. People living in a crowded metropolis like New York don’t use their cars very often at all. Most rely on public transportation. Which means that using a car to get places actually turns the act of driving into an event. Perhaps then you’re more willing to forgive the car’s shortcomings and focus instead on its parking and turning strengths.

The ForTwo is for a very specific person. I am not that person, and that’s okay.

Writer at Jalopnik and consumer of many noodles.

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Was REALLY looking forward to hearing how the manual fares in an everyday driving test. Are you going to have the chance to drive that version as well?