There’s no kind way to put this: The first-generation Smart Fortwo, specifically the one sold in the United States with the robotized transmission, was a terrible car. I hated driving it and said so often, mostly because of that miserable automated manual tranny. Small cars are just fine in my book — size was never the issue. I simply could not abide stepping on the gas pedal and have nothing happen for what seemed like three seconds. It was both annoying and unnerving, especially when driving in big, heaving, Los Angeles traffic. The auto-manual five-speed was the only transmission available, supposedly because a three-pedal solution wouldn’t pass U.S. crash tests (hint: one-footed survivors). The only solution was the worst transmission on Earth, apparently. Stupid, if you ask me. I mention the former (er, current) not-so-smart car to paint a picture of where I was mentally in regard to the new car. I had no expectations whatsoever. Well, friends, Smart is no doubt happy to hear that those nonexistent expectations have been exceeded. The brand-new Fortwo is pretty damn decent.
The new Smart seems a size larger than the previous one. That’s half an optical illusion. Smart didn’t want to change the stubby, nubby length, an attribute that existing Fortwo owners claim to love. Remember, the Fortwo is first and foremost a city car. Making it any longer means it wouldn’t fit in some parking spots. A big no-no in Smartville. The new Fortwo is, however, wider: 100 millimeters to be exact, or about 4 inches. This added carriage has several benefits. For one, the car can now pass the small-overlap crash test with a five-speed manual transmission. For two, the seats are no longer offset. The previous car was so narrow that the passenger seat was actually slightly behind the driver’s seat, leading to all sorts of packaging problems. The biggest one was that a four-passenger car would have to be slightly longer to accommodate the funky front seating arrangement. Yes, Virginia, there is a 4-seat, 4-door Smart called the Forfour (a mechanical twin of the new Renault Twingo) that will be on sale everywhere but the U.S. That said, don’t act too surprised if the Forfour shows up here in the States a few years after the Fortwo, which isn’t showing up here until late 2015. It will be on sale elsewhere sooner, however.
Back to those extra 4 inches: The added width makes safety-obsessed American consumers feel that the car is more crashworthy, a huge sales hurdle for American Smarts. Counterintuitively, the added width also helps the new Fortwo’s turning circle, allowing the little guy to do a full 180 in just under 23 feet. For a city car, that’s huge, pun intended. The wider body also gave the Smart designers more material to work worth. Viewed head on, the second-generation car looks solid. Very masculine, very muscular. Stubby, like an Italian bulldog, sure, but especially in comparison to the dopey, penalty-box-looking first-gen Fortwo, the new car is good-looking. Viewed from the side, the new Fortwo still looks small. However, slap on some black wheels and they trick your eyes into seeing more length. From the rear, the Forfour’s looks are much improved and it no longer looks like a pod on wheels. The LED taillights are sharp, too.
Inside the new Smart is worlds better than ye olde one. They’ve gone and covered the dash with what looks and feels like woven neoprene. I dig it. I also dig the clover-shaped air vents, which seem to hail from a much more expensive vehicle. The same is true for the massive, near-panoramic windshield. The navigation unit is simple in terms of functions, but complex when it comes to graphical richness. Again, you get the impression that you’re driving something that costs more than it does. The new Smart is stuffed with driver’s aids: lane keeping assist, crash alert, parking assist, backup camera, and start/stop. However, it sounds as if that last one isn’t coming in the U.S. version because Smart’s research shows Americans detest start/stop. Plus there’s the fact that start/stop doesn’t net any more MPGs on our vintage EPA cycle, so why bother?
Smart has its own bespoke program called Tailor Made that allows you to customize every single aspect of the car. Paint, wheels, leather, carbon fiber – whatever. With small premium currently one of the hottest auto segments, Tailor Made makes economic sense. Also, when they say every aspect, they mean it – including Jay-Z’s face airbrushed on the hood direct from the factory. Don’t ask. The one Tailor Made option I saw that I’d recommend to every future Smart owner is the upgraded, chrome-infused parking brake handle. The standard one is the worst part of the interior. Finally, I’d like to point out that the AC blows cold.
Oh, right. A parking brake handle typically indicates that there’s a manual transmission lurking around. Not only on the cars I drove, but on the cars coming to America. Terrific news for those of you who love driving. Even better, the robo transmission is dead, and has been replaced by a new Getrag six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Real quick on that one: Smart allowed me to sample what it referred to as a pre-pre-production example of the DCT car. Not only isn’t the DCT in its final state of tune, but this one was mounted to an engine we’re not getting in the U.S., a naturally aspirated 1.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 71 horsepower and 67 lb-ft of torque.
In terms of power I know that sounds like nothing, and numbers that small fill American hearts with terror because we know we’ll soon be merging onto the freeway among feral packs of F-150s and Escalades. But we’re talking about a car that weighs around 1 ton. The puny engine and the DCT felt perfectly adequate. While there were no paddles, the shift lever allows you to choose your own gears, which makes the most out of each precious pony. Left in auto, the DCT shifts fine, just like a normal car. Something you 100 percent could never say about the previous version.
But I’d go with the manual. It’s much more fun and better suits the personality of the Fortwo. First gear is particularly long, making it very useful in stop-and-go city traffic because you don’t have to constantly shift up to second. Second gear, conversely, feels pretty short but is a good ratio for cruising at city speeds. Of course the manual transmission was paired to the potent, turbocharged motor – the only engine we’re getting in the States for now, though word is a hopped-up Brabus Fortwo is imminent. The potent inline-three is actually slightly smaller than the naturally aspirated motor, having been destroked to 0.9 liters for turbo duty.
Power is 89 hp at 5500 rpm and 100 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm; redline is 6000. That’s enough grunt to make what Smart’s claiming is a 2100-pound car (U.S.-tuned cars are heavier than cars for other markets) pretty snappy, both off the line and when you’re darting in and out of traffic. Moreover, the Fortwo had no trouble whatsoever getting up to 75 mph and didn’t seem to mind cruising along at that speed. I even went for a pass at approximately 85 mph and while it wasn’t totally happy, the Fortwo did the deed. The steering is sharp and accurate and because the front wheels aren’t driven, there isn’t much understeer. True, the shrimpy wheelbase means rough pavement upsets the Fortwo pretty quickly, but on smooth asphalt the ride is relaxed and compliant. Impressive, actually.
Confession time. There was a mix-up when Smart was handing out the keys. See, the Americans were not supposed to drive the five-speed manual with the N/A engine. And considering there were at least five Germans in charge of putting a set of keys in my sweaty Yankee hands, I have no idea how the mix-up occurred. But it did and I spent the morning zipping and zooming around Barcelona in the 1.0-liter Fortwo. All of the above driving impressions are based on the car we’re not getting. The slow car. Once we all realized the error (despite their cries of “Unmöglich!”), I strapped into the more potent, turbocharged version and, dude, it’s pretty fun to drive. Much more so than I thought possible for any vehicle sporting the Smart badge. Shocking news, I know. I’m betting Smart’s going to have a little hit on its hands here in America. Like sex, fun sells. If you’re still not convinced, remember that like a Porsche 911, the Fortwo is both rear-engined and RWD. Add a powertrain worth a damn and that’s a recipe for sporty fun.
According to Christoph Horn, director of global communications for Mercedes-Benz, 54 percent of the world’s population currently lives in cities. This number will swell to 66 percent by 2050. Small, inexpensive, easy-to-maneuver cars make a whole bunch of sense when viewed in those terms. But the last Smart, the one they tried and pretty much failed to sell in America, was not the answer. Because it sucked. Drivability is just as important as all those other attributes, in my mind at least. The good news for both Smart and consumers who want a miniature, efficient, easy-to-park city car is that the new Smart Fortwo put a smile on my face. I never thought I’d say anything of the sort, but here we are.