Tell any car enthusiast that he is about to drive a two-seat convertible with an automated manual transmission, and he will imagine a fast roadster--some bullet-shaped car in Ferrari red or British racing green--cheerily chopping up corners over some winding, wooded highway. Mention a 70 horsepower, three-cylinder engine, and that same enthusiast's glee will turn to bafflement. Could this be some historic car, maybe a 1960s vintage BMW?
How about none of the above? Although a two-seater, the 2011 Smart ForTwo Passion Cabriolet is the opposite of sporty. Despite the convertible top, this is not a grand tourer appropriate for weekend wine country excursions. The Smart ForTwo is a bona fide city car, its boxy shape about as un-carlike as you can imagine.
To come up with the Smart ForTwo, its creators must have had everything they knew about automobile design surgically excised from their brains. Starting with a clean slate, they came up with an excellent mode of personal transport for congested urban centers.
Along the way, the Smart's designers discovered some interesting practicalities, such as the best place to put the engine (answer: in the rear, under the cargo area). And since the engine is in the rear, it might as well drive the rear wheels.
With a CNET editor in the cargo area, the Smart ForTwo becomes a ForThree.
And yes, despite the very short ForTwo, there is a cargo area. In fact, it is big enough to fit a full person, useful for those of you who have more than one friend. But the ForTwo's biggest virtue by far is the ability to park it in places other drivers can only dream about.
Take your average urban jungle, an environment in which people leave cars perched at any legal curb space for weeks at a time, just because leaving that space will mean hours spent searching for another one. Amid this parkacopalyptic landscape lay short curb spaces between driveways, little parking oases of which only the ForTwo can take advantage. That option alone will make the ForTwo attractive to any city dweller.
Smart snazzes up the ForTwo in its Cabriolet version by fitting it with a clever, if frivolous, soft top. The Smart ForTwo on its own is like an engineering nerd. With the convertible top, it's like an engineering nerd wearing a silk shirt. In its first stage, the top rolls back to open up the roof. Press the open button again, and the top bunches up behind the car. At this point, the roof rails can be manually snapped off and stowed inside the rear hatch, which is really going to be too much effort for most people, given that the reward is merely making the identity of the driver even more visible.
The Smart ForTwo's roof rails stow inside the rear hatch.
Highlighting the modernity of the ForTwo, in stock form there is no CD player; audio sources are limited to radio and a USB port in the glove box. And no, that USB port is not compatible with an iPod cable. On top of that, there is no Bluetooth phone system, and the audio system only has two speakers. The stereo is like one big boom box. Directional buttons to the right of the stereo make it easy to browse music on a USB drive, but the audio quality from this stereo is seriously lacking.
The ForTwo's stock stereo lacks a CD player, but does have a USB port.
Fortunately, that is not it for cabin tech. Smart makes a surprising number of options available in the ForTwo, including a Kenwood-sourced navigation head unit. This head unit integrates Garmin navigation, includes a Bluetooth phone system and iPod compatibility. Even more impressive is the available surround-sound audio system, with six speakers and a subwoofer.
But as those two tech options add $1,780 to the price, less ambitious buyers may want to look at Smart's iPhone app. This app is specifically designed for car use, with large buttons to access the iPhone music library, phone functions, navigation, and even a special Smart roadside assistance line, giving the car basic telematics functions. For better integration between app and car, Smart offers an accessory cradle that plugs into the car's power and audio system, muting music when a call comes in, for example.
Performance tech in the ForTwo is similarly limited, except for one important optional upgrade. The tiny engine is average, tech-wise. No turbo or direct injection, which may be a blessing as these technologies might not make sense on an engine this small. At 1 liters, and with only three cylinders, the engine makes 70 horsepower and 68 pound-feet of torque. But at around 2,000 pounds, this engine delivers enough power to get the car moving quickly, and lets it maintain freeway speeds of 70 mph.