Getting Real: Maturing Babe Leaves Toyland
As a pragmatic Midwestern suburbanite, I’ll confess I’ve never “gotten” the Smart car. Abundant parking here renders its micro-footprint of no real benefit, and it seems like cars this tiny, slow, and toylike ought to do WAY better than 34 mpg (6.9 L/100km) city/38 (6.2 L/100km) highway on the EPA dynos. Plus, the first two generations were pretty horrendous to drive. I’ll take “a real car” like the cleverly packaged, more fun-driving, 33/41-mpg (7.1/5.7 L/100km) Honda Fit, thanks. The desirability calculus, of course, completely changes for folks living and parking in dense urban centers where most Smarts get sold, and it’s especially compelling as an electric Zipcar. But maybe I’m getting more empathetic in my old age, or maybe the soft-top version of this third-gen Smart has improved to the point of qualifying as reasonable transportation in its own right, because I kind of liked driving this one.
To begin with, this latest model, co-developed with Renault (codenamed W453 and W454 in coupe and cabrio forms for you platform-nomenclature geeks), rides on a track width that’s broader by a welcome 3.9 inches (9.9 cm), on a suspension with longer wheel travel and less harsh spring rates, and on wider tires with taller sidewalls for improved grip and compliance. (They’ve grown from 155/60R15 front, 175/55R15 rear to 165/65R15 and 185/60R15.) A more powerful turbo three-banger (89 hp, up from 70) mates to a smooth and swift shifting new Twinamic six-speed, twin-clutch automatic (replacing the dull-witted five-speed, single-clutch automated manual) resulting in a car that feels far less toylike. Sadly, at 34/39 mpg (6.9/6 L/100km) it still only manages to achieve five-seater compact-car fuel economy.
This clever convertible top system helps forgive some sins, especially now that it can be motored open or closed (in just 12 seconds) even when traveling at the car’s top speed of 96 mph (154 km/h). You can also do it remotely while the car’s parked using the key fob. As before, there are three positions: The first is like a giant sunroof (at 19.4 square feet, it’s 4 percent larger than before) that preserves visibility out the new glass rear window. Press the top switch again, and the folded top material and rear window fold down to form a stack about 9 inches (22.9 cm) tall off the rear trunk opening. For the full convertible effect, press a button on each side roof rail to unclip and remove them, stowing them in the tailgate hatch.
Cabrios get their own unique structure, with a slimmer B-pillar on the Tridion frame, an X-brace underneath, torsional bulkhead panels front and rear, and hot-formed high-strength-steel tubes reinforcing the A-pillars. In all, the reinforcements are said to add less than 100 pounds (45 kg) and to render the W454 cabrio 15 percent stiffer in torsion than its W451 predecessor. Parent company Daimler subjects Smart cabrios to the same rigorous testing S-Class cabrios get: Opening and closing the top 20,000 times at temperatures ranging from 5 to 176 degrees F, performing 500 automatic car washes, and opening the top when it’s caked with ice at 40 below.
The 4.1 inches of added width expand an already astonishingly roomy cockpit, accommodating even my 6-foot-6 co-driver comfortably (though his left knee was always resting on the mirror switch, suggesting that could benefit from relocation). Another peculiarity of packaging worth a rethink is the pod-mounted tachometer, plunked way over near the driver’s A-pillar where my gaze never fell. Cargo volume is also up slightly, with my tape measure suggesting an increase from 12.0 to 13.5 cubic feet from floor to roof. Cabrios will all come in the new Prime level of trim (above Pure and Passion and below Proxy among the coupe’s trim levels). This may be in part to maintain Smart’s claim of being the lowest-price convertible available in the North America (undercutting the $21,390 USD Fiat 500c).
Feature content and materials, therefore, seem quite upscale. (And if the regular options aren’t sufficiently swell, Smart’s Tailor Made arm is happy to go all Designo on your Smart.) The standard infotainment screen with TomTom navigation, the classy and unique to Smart climate controls, and the instrument binnacle with burnt-orange on white speedometer markings help elevate the Smart above its price-range competitors.
To assess the Smart in its natural urban habitat we spent an afternoon plying the boulevards and alleyways of Valencia, Spain. Acceleration still feels superslow, but at least it’s really smooth now. Visibility is superb, and the high-def rearview camera compensates for the cabrio’s smaller rear window. Despite widening the track, the engineers shrank the turn circle from 28.7 feet to just 22.8 feet, which should eliminate the need for three-point turns even in a two-car driveway. The little turbo-triple is a veritable paint-shaker at idle, especially when cold. It also shudders very noticeably upon shutdown and restart in auto start/stop mode. (That function can be switched off easily.)
On day two of our drive, we ventured into the countryside, opening the top at 96 mph (154 km/h) with ease. Wind noise is prominent with the top closed, but it doesn’t seem to get any worse from 70 mph (113 km/h) up to top speed. Opening the sunroof section increases noise but keeps drafts to a minimum. Lowering the back of the roof noticeably reduces wind noise but allows more wind to chill occupants’ necks. With the roof bars stowed and all windows down, it feels more convincingly convertible-y than the Fiat 500c, which retains its side-door window frames.
On one particularly twisty road, it took a great deal of courage to summon the will to fling this microcar hard into turns, but when I finally tip-toed to the limit of adhesion, it was announced by a scruffing noise, no squealing from the Michelin Energy Saver tires. No real feedback is felt through the now electrically assisted steering, but the tires generate enough grip that the rest of your body can better sense the impending grip/slip transition. Single-wheel bumps still tend to excite peculiar body motions that may be unavoidable in ultra-short-wheelbase cars, but the ride quality and body-motion control both feel considerably more mature. Throw in new crosswind assist electronics, and you just end up with a vehicle that feels a lot more confident driving down a highway.
The Fortwo should still appeal primarily to stylish, upscale urban dwellers who usually make short trips. The 8.7-gallon tank of gas will last them reasonably long, and the fun/funky colors, fancy trim, slick top, and “by Mercedes-Benz” cachet and safety rep will justify the price and allow buyers to forgive the 11.7-second 0-60 time. And now when my local (primarily gal) pals ask about “those precious Smart cars,” I no longer feel compelled to dissuade them.
|2017 Smart Fortwo Cabrio|
|BASE PRICE||$21,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Rear-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door convertible|
|ENGINE||0.9L/89-hp/100-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed twin-clutch auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,150 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||106.1 x 65.5 x 61.1 in|
|0-62 MPH||11.7 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||34/39/36 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||99/86 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.54 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Summer, 2016|