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Just In: Smart ForTwo

Consumer Reports News: May 26, 2008 07:08 AM

Sometimes events converge together:
Wednesday: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) releases crash test results for the Smart ForTwo.
Thursday: We take delivery of our Smart.
Friday: The start of my annual pilgrimage to the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Import and Replicar Show.

The result: A 1,000-mile road trip in our Smart over a three-day weekend.

It won’t come as a big surprise that a Smart isn’t really an optimum long-distance road trip car. The tiny two-seater is intended as a fashionable urban runabout; it’s a fairly common sight in big cities in Europe where parking is at a premium and low-displacement engines avoid big taxes. But now the second-generation ForTwo is on sale here in the United States, where people drive longer distances and the roads are filled with hulking SUVs.

My wife thought (once again) that I was a bit nuts for taking the Smart on this trip. The aforementioned crash test results helped me feel a bit better; the 1,800-pound Smart did quite well in the IIHS offset- and side-impact tests. Still, watching the crash videos, it was disheartening to see the car bounce dramatically away from the frontal-offset barrier, suggesting a risk for moving into oncoming traffic or tripping off the road. And the IIHS was quite clear in their press release that minicars have the highest relative accident death rate on the road.

Everything is relative. When I stopped to fill up the Smart during a rainy night on I-95 (you do that often with such a puny 8.7-gallon tank), I pulled into the pumps behind two people on a BMW motorcycle. Even though they had full riding safety gear, I felt a bit bad for them—they’re a lot more exposed than I was in my airbag-equipped transportation pod. (Plus I had a roof.) Surprisingly, you don’t feel that vulnerable in the Smart; the high seating position puts you at a decent height relative to other cars and the airy and roomy-enough-for-two cabin doesn’t feel as squished inside as you’d think. Just don’t look over your shoulder.

It’s a disappointment that this tiny car lacks daytime running lights—given its size, you can use all of the help to be seen you can get. And don’t expect slower-moving vehicles to get out of the way when you come up behind them to pass; the Smart doesn’t exactly enforce lane discipline from other drivers.

But once people see you, the Smart is one of the most stared-at cars on the road. Everyone looks at you and lots of people point. Some of them laugh. You wind up waving a lot. Smarts are still rare sights, especially outside of the urban areas where most of the dealers are located.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Smart drew a lot of attention when parked on the show field at Carlisle. Every time I went back to the car, it had drawn a small crowd. (There was a lot more interest in the Smart than there was in the Jaguar XK convertible I drove to the show two years ago.) People basically had the same two questions: What is it and what kind of fuel mileage does it get.

The answer: On our not-yet-broken-in Smart, I observed 40 mpg on the required premium fuel while cruising at highway speeds. With all of 71 horsepower from the tiny 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine, the Smart keeps up in traffic but struggles to maintain speed on highway hills. You’re tempted to manually downshift the slow-shifting automated manual using the paddle shifters. When worked, this gasoline engine sounds a lot like a diesel. Still, this car is a lot quicker than the first-generation Canadian-market Smart turbodiesel we previously tested.

There is something of a debate brewing in the automotive press of whether the Smart ForTwo is fun to drive. As Lawrence Ulrich wrote in his pointed New York Times review, “The Smart has been described as fun to drive by some reviewers, but other than showing taillights to the neighborhood riding mowers, I don’t see it.”

To my way of thinking, the Smart’s fun doesn’t come from doing the normal things that make other cars fun—like super handling or acceleration—but rather that it does normal car stuff at all. Compared to every other car in this market, it seems so wonderfully improbable that this tiny car can haul two people and their luggage while keeping up (and sometimes passing) highway traffic. Plus, just as driving a big SUV can inspire some evil thoughts (Can I clear that curb in the mall parking lot?), the Smart almost begs you to find tiny parking spots or squeeze into little holes in traffic.

But just how well does the Smart do normal car stuff? We’ll let you know as we put more miles on ours.

Tom Mutchler

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