Driving the Right Car
The two factoids that stuck out most at the 2016 Smart Fortwo‘s U.S. press reveal?
First, to quote Smart global PR chief Willem Spelten, “Smart is not a cheap car.” Now starting at $15,400 USD, the Fortwo costs more than a four-seat Chevrolet Spark ($13,095 USD for a 2015 vehicle). It’s more than a five-person (sort of) Ford Fiesta, too, which would set you back $14,965 USD for an S-grade sedan. But Smart wants you to know it’s not wanting for quality. The new Fortwo has more interior space, better materials, and new standard equipment for delighting your friends, one individual at a time.
Second, Smart wants everyone to know it does indeed realize its cars are quite small and are consequently unlikely to sell mammoth quantities in the States. The sales impact comes with the city car territory. Smart is also not flabbergasted when disparagers blurt out, “This car is too small!” (Which seems like one of the many thinly veiled ways of saying, “This car doesn’t fit my lifestyle!”)
If your lifestyle involves circling the blocks in search of parking, frequent hopping on and off of streetcar tracks, and waiting forever for pedestrian throngs to finish crossing, the Fortwo just might be the car for you. And as our First Drive categorically affirms, there’s no way the new C453 generation is not an improvement over the elder version. Every part is new. Codeveloped with Renault, the Fortwo is still 106.1 inches long for greater parallel parking ease. It’s 4.1 inches wider than before and 0.5 inch taller, and the wheelbase is extended 0.2 inch, lessening the cramped feeling inside. The partnership with the French yields a new-to-Fortwo powertrain in the form of a five-speed manual transmission clinging to a rear-mounted, turbocharged, 0.9-liter three-cylinder angled at 49 degrees toward the rear-exiting exhaust end (about 40 degrees more than this H4Bt TCe 90 engine’s cited standard tilt). The cabin is jazzed up to feel like a modern car instead of a DaimlerChrysler-era Mercedes A-Class. If you’re going to spend 10 minutes looking for parking after already driving for 10 minutes, you might as well luxuriate with the posher interior and pretty decent (for the 73.7-inch wheelbase) ride.
Unlike our first go-round, we spent the entirety of the follow-up Smart encounter driving the correct representative car. That would be the one armed with the North American-spec engine and the $990 USD, Getrag-sourced six-speed twin-clutch automatic. Predictably, Smart expects 80 percent of its customers to choose the auto over the manual. If you never experienced the outgoing Fortwo’s five-speed automated manual, you’ll think the new dual-clutch transmission is the most unspectacular tranny option in the world. If you have been with the automated manual, you’ll think either the 2016 car has lost the quirkiest (and therefore coolest) touch or Smart finally smarted up and fixed whatever had broken in every single five-speed auto-manual unit. Whether returning Smart drivers love it or hate it, new customers win. The six-speed’s shifts are executed in a reasonable amount of time, and it’s clear Smart wasn’t aiming to have the quickest gear changes in the industry. Depending on your personal views, you could be elated or bummed that shifts no longer theatrically pitch the Fortwo forward and back.
With that transmission combined with the 89-horsepower, 100-lb-ft I-3, Smart estimates a 0-60 mph time of 10.5 seconds (10.1 with the manual). If it turns out to be true, the 10.5-second time would be a whopping 29 percent improvement from a 2008 Fortwo we tested; that one demanded 14.7 seconds. However, added weight appears to offset any gained powertrain efficiencies, as 32-34/39/35-36 mpg (7.3-6.9/6/6.7-6.5 L/100km) city/highway/combined EPA estimates (the manual is lower in the city) barely improve on the previous car’s 34/38/36 mpg (6.9/6.2/6.5 L/100km).
The new car is zippy once it gets up to speed but needs some driver assistance from a stop. It takes a second or two from the moment the accelerator pedal is matted for the Fortwo to wind up and get to galloping with urgency, a vital point of consideration when making unprotected turns in busy intersections. Fully opening the throttle generates some acceleration and a whole lot of racket. As the engine sits beneath the cargo hold, your ears will pick up the mixing of the three-cylinder thrum and turbo whoosh, the net result sounding like the rushing ocean waves amplified by a seashell. The Smart is happiest at an easygoing pace where driving and maneuvering it are, well, easy.
You can shift the transmission manually with the gear lever on the console or with paddles on the steering wheel, the latter available with the $600 USD Sport package and standard on the range-topping Proxy trim. The extra gear in the automatic transmission helps reduce buzziness on the highway, the 0.9-liter turning 2,300 rpm at 60 mph to the old 1.0-liter’s 2,950 rpm at the same speed. The standard crosswind assist function helps nudge the car back in line while compensating for strong perpendicular gusts. It’s subtle, but you can feel there’s something going on in the background. Have to give credit where it’s due, though. You can push the wheelbase-disadvantaged hatchback to high speeds without wobbling. (The top speed is 96 mph (154 km/h.)
As the Fortwo’s weight hovers in the 2,000-pound (907 kg) range and the front wheels can cock to 51 degrees at steering lock to enforce the remarkable 22.8-foot turning circle, the car’s home and heart are in the city. The lack of size has been the Fortwo’s defining characteristic since its introduction, and that won’t change with the 2016 model. Smart goes after a very specific clientele: those who won’t immediately dismiss the stubby hatchback for its maximum occupancy and super compact dimensions. There is perhaps no other car sold in the North America as singularly fixated on ensuring driving and particularly parking is as painless as possible. For that select minority who’ll put up with the double seating and premium-octane gas consumption, the Fortwo is the absolute right choice.
|2016 Smart Fortwo|
|BASE PRICE RANGE||$15,400-$19,230|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Rear-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||0.9L/89-hp/100-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3|
|TRANSMISSIONS||5-speed manual, 6-speed twin-clutch auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,000-2,050 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||106.1 x 65.5 x 61.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||10.1-10.5 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||33-34/39/36 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||99-102/86 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.54-0.55 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|
Smart Fortwo: Is It Safe?
Although the 2016 Fortwo has yet to be evaluated for crashworthiness by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, it’s hard to imagine the new car and its strengthened Tridion safety structure doing worse than the outgoing model. For reference, the 2015 Fortwo earned a three-star rollover score in the NHTSA curriculum and was not assessed for frontal or side collisions. The IIHS granted Good grades for its moderate-overlap front, side, and roof strength tests and Acceptable when rating the head restraints and seats. Across the Atlantic, the new Fortwo has four stars overall (out of five possible) under the Euro New Car Assessment Program, and the official Smart party line is that’s pretty good; many of its Old World competitors also banked four stars.
So all the engineering mockups assert the reinforced and slightly heavier C453 Fortwo will fare better should it decide to share its energy with another car or an immovable object (crash, for the layman). But common sense still dictates that because it’s small, it’s automatically a deathtrap, right?
Luckily for our edification, IIHS publishes driver death rates every few years, sortable by vehicle make and model, using real-world crash data collating. Based on a sample of 106,146 Fortwo registration years from the earliest 2008 to 2011 model years, IIHS determined the Smart’s overall driver death rate to be 36 deaths per 1 million registered vehicle years. That’s 29 percent higher than the cumulative average of 28 deaths per million for all eligible 2008-2011 vehicle years recorded (62,932,462). But the Fortwo’s rate is far from bottom of the barrel. Larger vehicles such as the Honda Civic sedan (49 deaths per million), Nissan Altima (44), and Buick LaCrosse (43) produced more fatalities.
Ah, but that only accounts for deaths surely injuries from accidents must be more serious than normal? IIHS’ parsing of insurance loss data doesn’t back that allegation, either. In fact, for the Fortwo’s 2008-2013 model years, tabulated collision, comprehensive, property damage, personal injury, medical payment, and bodily injury claims end up being rated “substantially better” or “better than average” and never worse than “average” when compared with all other vehicles within the sample model year range.
Driving a very small car is not for everyone. But based on information from a respected automotive organization, the data that would support Fortwo poo-pooing on safety grounds alone simply doesn’t exist.