Thursday, January 7, 2010

Smart Fortwo Test Drive

I recently test drove the Smart Fortwo at the dealership. I've seen many of them on the European streets during my trip there a few years ago. Unlike most cars which park parallel to the curb on the streets, these Smart Fortwo's can be parked perpendicular to the curbs. Yes, they take very little parking space which comes in handy in many crowded metropolitans.

The Smart Fortwo comes in two body styles: coupe and cabriolet. The base (Pure) coupe starts at about $12k, the higher-trim (Passion) coupe starts at $14k, the Passion-only cabriolet starts at $17k, and then there are the Brabus dressed-up coupe and cabriolet ($18k and $21k, respectively). Its motivation comes from a 1.0L, 70hp/68lb-ft, three-cylinder engine which hooks up to a 5-speed automated manual transmission. The front suspension is MacPherson strut while the rear wheels are linked by beam axle. Brakes are disc/drum setup with ABS and force distribution system. It has all the safefty features one would expect from a modern car.

Let's do some tire-kicking. The exterior body panels are made out of ABS plastic which feels quite flimsy when you knock on it. Though, the paint quality and exterior fit-and-finish seems pretty good. The rear glass hatch and tailgate can be opened separately to access the tiny cargo compartment. The cloth for the top on the cabriolet model seems high-quality, opens neatly, and fits tightly when closed. Very Mercedes-like. Once inside the car, the material and fit-and-finish are pretty good. Seats are okay with not much lateral support. Seating position is too high for my liking. On the plus side, the steering wheel feels great in my hands, and the shifter is short and stubby.

The test drive was done on surface streets with no freeway driving. Why? Lack of power is an understatement for this car. My right foot was pinned on the floor during almost the entire drive. It has no low-end torque nor mid-range power. Only at near redline can you feel the slightest forward movement. You really have to drive it like you stole it to barely keep up with the flow of traffic. The manufacture claims that it tops out at 90 mph. However, I'm interested to find out how much distance it needs to get to that mark. The transmission was equally dissatisfying. I'm a huge fan of dual-clutch automated manual gearbox such as the one in VW GTI. However, I'm far less of a fan of single-clutch automated manual gearbox such as the one in BMW E46 M3 and our feature car here. In the E46 M3, the gearbox shifts SLOOOOOWLY in auto mode, making everyone in the car a bubblehead. The clutch-less manual in the Smart is far worse. Not only are the shifts painfully slow, the transmission doesn't handle the starts from standing still well at all. It hesitates whether you start leasurely or aggresively. I tried mashing the gas from a standing still and felt a lot of slippage from the computer "feathering" the clutch too much. Maybe there's a bright spot in Smart's handling? Yes, there is one. It has exteremely tight turing radius, and that's about it. The ride is quite harsh, and the straight line stability isn't great. I can imagine it bouncing all over the place at highway speed on freeways with less-than-perfect road surface. The steering is light and numb with minimal feedback. As stated earlier, the test drive was done on public roads so I can't report on its handling at near-limit, but I don't expect any pleasent surprise there, either.

What about fuel efficiency? This car should save the planet, right? The EPA rates it at 33/41 MPG. However, I seriously doubt that average owners will see even mid-30's overall because how hard you have to drive this thing. That, to me, is not very efficient given its size and the sacrafices one has to make owning this car.

In my humble opinion, the Smart Fortwo is too small to be practical (unless you live in New York or Rome or London....), too slow to be safely driven on the freeways, too harsh and noisy to drive comfortablely, and too expensive to be economical. The Smart Fortwo has just beaten the Chrysler PT Crusier and Chevy HHR for my "The Worst Car That I Have Ever Driven" award. I would not buy one at ANY price. For what you get, this is a very expensive car. There are many better, in all aspects, alternatives on the market in its entire price range.

Like: Tight turning radius, good steering wheel.

Dislike: Just about everything else.

Verdict: The worst car that I have ever driven, period.

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