The Smart and I

Consumer Reports News: June 26, 2008 01:39 PM

After commuting in the Smart ForTwo a few times, I couldn’t help contemplating how little the world of automobiles has advanced over the last fifty years.

My motorized career began in the early 1960s, with a 1957 BMW Isetta 300. At the time, my parents couldn’t afford much more than the second-hand post-war bubble-car. At least it was a major upgrade over the Lambretta scooter my father owned before he got married. I was placed on the package shelf – baked from below by the single-cylinder, 298 cc engine, and broiled from above by the scorching Israeli sun through the rear window. Perhaps that explains how my love of cars was seared into me at an early age. Infant carrier? Forget it. Seat belts? Not a chance. Air-conditioning? Only by opening the fabric top. Clearly, today this would amount to child abuse; back then it was hip.

You might think it’s off the wall, but actually it’s not so crazy to compare the Smart with the Isetta. Both are two-seat micro cars with a rear engine. One had a BMW badge on its front-swinging door; the other is marketed by Mercedes-Benz. The Smart has a three-cylinder engine and—with some patience—exceeds 90 mph; the Isetta could barely bump 50 mph with a stiff Mediterranean tailwind. But I bet even now, the Isetta would draw at least as much curiosity on the street as the Smart. Granted, the Smart has a lot more safety equipment. (Score an extra point for the Smart.)

The 2009 Smart ForTwo we’re testing makes you feel vulnerable with its lethargic take-off. The bone-jarring ride is fatiguing. And, at every up shift, the automated manual transmission creates a nauseating heave and pitch. While the 39 mpg overall we attained with it is good, it needs to be put in perspective. The discontinued Toyota Echo four-door sedan we tested in 2000 got 38 mpg overall (with a manual transmission). The Volkswagen Golf diesel we tested back then got 41 mpg. Both cars were practical five-seaters that drive much more “normally” than the puny Smart.

Since the Smart becomes such an instant conversation piece. It’s kind of like walking your new puppy... Here’s a sample of the most common questions I've been asked about the Smart:
“Is it electric?”
“Is it a hybrid”
“Does it get, like, 80 mpg?”

Granted, 80 mpg would be nice (and maybe even make up for all the compromises this car requires), but even a decent scooter doesn’t do that. According to Vespa, its GTS 250 model gets 65-70 mpg under laboratory conditions. In other words, even with today’s technology, we have to settle for a dinky, $15,000 two-seater to get 39 mpg, if we don’t choose a more expensive hybrid.

That brings to mind another forgotten car. Remember the Honda Insight? The first hybrid car, offered from 2000 to 2006 in the U.S., sold for $19,000. It was also a two-seater, but accelerated from zero to sixty in a respectable 11.2 seconds (with the manual tranny) and got 51 mpg overall. In my view, settling for a klutzy, limited use two-seater might as well bring dividends in other areas and the Insight did so more than the Smart.

So, looking at the historical evolution of cars, if the Smart marks a half–century’s worth of automotive progress in terms of inexpensive, frugal motoring, it doesn't exactly leapfrog over the Isetta. Overall, it’s not a particularly impressive record for us as a society.

Gabe Shenhar

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