Americans don't like small cars. That's an over-generalization, of course, but there's little doubt our country's is the biggest, heaviest vehicle fleet in the world. Record gas prices and increasing environmental awareness, though, have combined to create a bona fide boom in sales of compact cars. In some respects, Mercedes-Benz couldn't have chosen a better time to introduce to the U.S. its smart brand microcars that have been tooling around Europe for 10 years now. The new, second-generation fortwo is also larger than the first (believe it or not), which is just the way we Americans like it.
YOU'LL LIKE THIS CAR IF...
If you like the idea of driving a car that turns heads and starts conversations, or if you face parking challenges on a regular basis, the fortwo may be for you. The fortwo cabriolet boasts the added advantage of being the most affordable convertible available.
YOU MAY NOT LIKE THIS CAR IF...
If you're looking to mitigate the financial impact of a longish highway commute, you might be disappointed in the affordable and fuel-efficient smart fortwo's skittish highway manners. You may also find frustrating the shifting behavior of the fortwo's "automated manual" transmission.
WHAT'S SIGNIFICANT ABOUT THIS CAR
Fresh from its American debut last year, the smart fortwo sees little change for 2009. Daytime running lights are now available as an option, and a "loose cap" indicator light is added on the dash, alerting the driver when the gas cap hasn't been screwed on tightly enough. To increase storage space, expandable nets replace plastic bins on the side doors.
For a vehicle so extremely compact and lightweight, we found the 2009 smart fortwo's highway ride quite comfortable. The faster you go, however, the more skittish the fortwo becomes, and we eventually tired of having to constantly "steer" the car straight down the road. Similarly, we never got used to the automated manual transmission that swaps gears with all the grace of a backhoe. Where we most enjoyed our time at the controls of the smart fortwo was in parking lots, where the car's micro measurements and sub-30-foot turning circle combine to deliver an almost comical sense of agility. Although the smart fortwo's 90-mph top speed and 13-second zero-to-60 mph acceleration qualify it as one of the slowest new vehicles on the road, the upside is that you get to "floor it" more often.
OUR FAVORITE FEATURES
Tridion Safety Cell
There's no escaping the fact that the 2009 smart fortwo is essentially the smallest, lightest vehicle on the road, but it's demonstrated impressive crashworthiness.
Some newer convertibles let you open or close the top at speeds up to 25 or 30 miles per hour. In the smart fortwo, you can let the sunshine in – or shut the rain out – even when maxed out at the car's 90-mph top speed
The big story inside the 2009 smart fortwo is roominess. Plenty of headroom, a relatively compact instrument panel and open space where you'd expect a center console all contribute to an interior that feels less confined than that of the significantly longer and wider MINI Cooper. The fortwo even boasts a larger rear cargo area than the MINI Cooper (the MINI's two extra fold-down rear seats notwithstanding). The interior styling is unique, but not as quirky as the car's exterior design might lead you to expect.
More than just tiny, the smart fortwo looks like nothing else on the road. The body panels are made of dent-resistant plastic, and the design element that runs from behind the front wheel up to the roof is actually part of what the company calls the "tridion" safety cell – made of high-strength steel and painted black or metallic silver. The second-generation fortwo is nearly eight inches longer than the first model, which can be parked nose-first between parallel parked vehicles. Whether local law enforcement and the added length allow that to happen in the U.S. remains to be seen.
NOTABLE STANDARD EQUIPMENT
Conspicuously absent from the smart fortwo's standard equipment list are a sound system, air conditioning, power windows and power mirrors. "Luxuries" provided at base price include power locks with remote keyless entry, plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel and transmission selector. A full complement of standard safety equipment includes four airbags, electronic stability control and an advanced braking system.
In addition to power windows and mirrors, a CD sound system and air conditioning with automatic climate control, the 2009 smart fortwo's options list includes heated leather seats, a fixed panorama glass roof and a sport steering wheel with paddle shifters.
UNDER THE HOOD
Tipping the scales at just 1,800 pounds (700 pounds less than a Mazda MX-5 Miata), the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive 2009 smart fortwo is able to make its way in the world by means of an unusually small three-cylinder engine (that requires premium-grade fuel). The attached five-speed transmission is also distinct in that it's essentially a manual gearbox that the fortwo electro-mechanically manages automatically – there's no clutch pedal or manual shift lever.
1.0-liter in-line 3
70 horsepower @ 5800 rpm
68 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4500 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 33/41
The 2009 smart fortwo coupe starts at a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of just over $12,500 and tops out around $17,000. The convertible ranges from about $17,500 to $20,000, and qualifies as the country's lowest-priced drop-top. We expect our New Car Blue Book Values to reflect real-world selling prices in line with those sticker prices. Many buyers will find greater value in larger, more powerful, not-inefficient "competitors" like the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit. We expect the 2009 smart fortwo to perform very well in terms of resale value, however, its residuals remain lower than those of both the Yaris and Fit over time.