Smart ForTwo grows up for 2016, stays as compact as ever

The Smart car is weird; it always has been an odd little micro-machine, but the 2016 Smart ForTwo is somehow even weirder for a variety of reasons. However, for fans of the original, the new ForTwo is also undoubtedly better than its predecessor in almost every measurable way.

Performance improvements

The most obvious improvements to the Smart ForTwo happen in the engine bay, which is still hidden beneath the floor of the rear storage area. The rear-engine, rear-drive ForTwo is powered by a 0.9-liter, three-cylinder turbocharged engine that makes 89 horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque. The engine is reasonably quiet (mostly due to gratuitous amounts of insulation on the trunk's floor) and fairly zippy at city speeds.

Zippy, in this case, is a zero-to-60 mph time of 10.1 seconds. That's not a neck-snapping pace, but the new model does this sprint 3 seconds faster than its predecessor.

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Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The new engine can be mated to one of two new, improved set of transmission options. The first is a five-speed manual transmission, which technically makes the ForTwo the only 2016 Mercedes-Benz vehicle available with a manual option.

Most 2016 ForTwos sold will be equipped with choice No. 2: a new six-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) that replaces to the old (and universally loathed) single-clutch tranny as the automatic option. The DCT's shifts are generally smooth and quick, but I did notice that off the line the Smart can be a bit stuttery and hesitant, though the engine's low torque may be more to blame there.

Overall, the new, smoother DCT maybe the single best improvement to the gasoline-powered ForTwo.

The Smart features sport and eco drive modes. In its most efficient mode, the ForTwo will do an EPA-estimated 33 miles per gallon in the city, 39 mpg on the highway and 36 combined mpg when equipped with the DCT. Choose the manual gearbox and sacrifice a single city mile per gallon.

The 2016 Smart ForTwo's chassis is 3.9 inches wider than the outgoing model, which translates into more shoulder room in the cabin and a more planted feel on the highway. The wider stance works in concert with the new model's increased suspension travel, which soaks up the bumps and joints of the highway surprisingly well for such a vehicle with such a short wheelbase.

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Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Mercedes-Benz has also worked to improve the wind and road noise at highway speeds; I noticed a bit of wind noise coming from the ForTwo's protruding door handles, but it's only noticeable if you're rolling along without the radio playing.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the wider ForTwo has a smaller turning circle than its predecessor. The 2016 model has a curb-to-curb turning diameter of just 22.8 feet, over 5 feet tighter than the old ForTwo's 28-foot arc. With the typical US street being about 24 feet wide, the Smart can flip a quick U-ey on most two-lane roads instead of having to do a three-point turn.

Combined with the short length (the ForTwo retains the previous generation's 8.8-foot overall length), the tight turning arc makes the Smart very easy to park. Most of the ForTwo's body is covered in composite (plastic) panels, which makes the Fortwo very resilient to bumps and knocks that you'll get when parking in the city.

Interface oddities

For all of the improvements to the ForTwo's performance, Smart has made some very weird choices where its interface is concerned.

For example, consider the instrument cluster. Rather than a single bank of gauges, Smart has weirdly elected to put the tachometer and clock in a separate pod near the A-pillar, despite there being plenty of room in the main cluster. Most of the main cluster is wasted by a large arc-shaped speedometer that overlays a tiny red needle over cramped red text that is difficult read at a glance. Meanwhile, a largish digital information display that occupies most of space beneath the gauge cluster hood displays interesting, but not mission-critical, information such as fuel economy data.

The base stereo is a fairly standard setup with six speakers, Bluetooth, and auxiliary and USB connectivity. It doesn't have a CD slot, but that's not the most interesting thing about it.

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Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In the center of the base radio is a small, circular cap protecting the connection of a $100 smartphone cradle that snaps onto the Smart's dashboard. The cradle integrates a USB or Lightning pigtail that connects the phone to the car for charging and connectivity. Pop your phone into place for easy access to Smart's free CrossConnect app for Android and iOS devices.

The Smart CrossConnect app is a sort of do-it-all infotainment app that handles media playback and navigation, but it is also able to communicate with the car via its USB connection. The app can also control the car's radio tuner and monitor efficient driving habits.

The app also includes a feature called SmartSpots: a user-generated database of tiny, legal parking spots that only the Smart ForTwo can fit into.

The North American version of the app that I was able to test during my two days of driving is a beta -- very beta -- and crashed and froze more than a few times during my testing. Also it didn't seem to include traffic information, often didn't speak the street names and generally didn't give very good directions. Smart assures me that many of these issues will be fixed before the ForTwo's launch and even sent our feedback to the developers during the drive program.

On the bright side, the the cradle also puts the driver just a tap away from switching over to Google Maps, Apple Maps or whatever other navigation software you prefer, which is what I ended up doing instead of using Smart's solution.

Drivers who prefer an in-dash touchscreen can opt for a 7-inch Smart Media-System that features onboard navigation with traffic and MirrorLink smartphone screen-mirroring compatibility. This unit was not yet available for testing.

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Smart, Mercedes-Benz

Passive and active safety tech

Smart has always made the diminutive ForTwo's safety a top concern. The new model retains the Tridion safety cell construction that made the original model so strong and crashworthy.

The new ForTwo now features eight airbags around the two passengers and new standard feature called Crosswind Assist. At speeds above about 50 mph, this system detects when the lightweight coupe is being pushed around by strong gusts of wind over bridges or large trucks passing. When drift is detected, the system intervenes with braking intervention to help yaw the vehicle back on course. I never noticed the system in action, despite getting fairly close to a few trucks, so it's either very subtle in its operation or the wider ForTwo is naturally more resistant to strong gusts than before.

In addition to the standard Crosswind system, the European ForTwo can be had with an optional forward-collision warning system that alerts the driver (but doesn't intervene) when the closing speed with the leading car is high enough to indicate an imminent collision and an optional Lane Keeping Assist that uses a camera to detect the vehicle's position between the lane lines and alerts the driver when drifting out of the lane without signaling. However, these features are not available on the North American model.

The North American model is available with an optional rear proximity alert and an optional rear camera, though neither is really a necessity on so compact a car.

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Smart, Mercedes-Benz

Small car, small price

The 2016 Smart ForTwo starts at $14,650 for the base Pure trim level with the manual transmission. In total, there are four trim levels: Pure, Passion, Prime and Proxy, each adding content, style and price to the bottom line. All ForTwo models will feature a $750 destination charge when they reach American dealerships in late September.

In the UK, where the 2016 Smart ForTwo is already available alongside the four-doored ForFour, expect the price to start around £11,125. Australian pricing and availability have not yet been announced.

The Smart ForTwo convertible is set to be revealed at around the same time at the Frankfurt auto show. And the next-generation Smart ForTwo ED (electric drive) will be coming late in 2016. European Smart drivers will also get a Brabus performance option in mid-2016, but the automaker is still considering whether or not to bring the Brabus model to North America.

 

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