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.
Appropriately sized for the small ForTwo, the engine brings in fuel economy numbers of 33 mpg city and 41 mpg highway. In freeway testing, the instant fuel meter averaged around 40 mpg. During CNET's time focusing primarily on city driving, it turned in only 26 mpg. Put that low figure down to typical car reviewer driving, mashing the gas pedal at every start.
The transmission's manual mode does not eliminate the slow shifting problem.
Holding the ForTwo back is its most technically advanced piece of performance tech, the transmission. Similar to versions of the Lancer Evo and Volkswagen GTI, the ForTwo's five-speed transmission uses an automated clutch. But unlike those cars' dual-clutch systems, the ForTwo only gets a single clutch, so gear changes take a horribly long time.
This gearbox has evoked much criticism of the ForTwo, and will make first-time drivers of the car think it almost undriveable. Accelerate from a stop, and the car picks up speed until the first gear change, when power drops drastically. And again, from second to third, another long power drop. It is unnerving until you get used to it.
And the transmission's manual mode does not cure the problem; telling the car to upshift delivers the same, slow gear change. After some time with the car, however, you can adjust to it, timing the shifts and throttle control to smooth over the dips. The addition of a tachometer, which the ForTwo lacks, would really help drivers time the shifts. The transmission is one area of the car that Smart could definitely stand to improve.
As much of the car is designed to save money and space, it does not come with power steering, which becomes immediately noticeable on trying to crank the wheel around from a stop or at slow speeds. It takes effort, even with the car's tiny tires. But this issue can be fixed with the optional electric power steering unit, a feature that Smart should really make standard.
Power steering is an option in the Smart ForTwo.
One aspect of the ForTwo that probably can't be helped is the awful ride quality. Its small wheels and short wheelbase lead to plenty of jouncing around, the car getting lifted back and forth by any bumps in the road. The suspension tech in front is fairly modern, if average, with Macpherson struts, but the rear uses a solid bar, a DeDion axle that keeps the rear wheels from completely independent travel.
The brakes are also troublesome, as they don't feel like there is any power assist at all. Drivers of the ForTwo must anticipate braking situations much more than in other cars, as it takes a lot of effort to stop the car.
Although the ForTwo can easily keep up with freeway speeds, it can feel a little scary. Wind and grooves in the pavement pull the car around more than they would a heavier vehicle, and the ForTwo is not particularly aerodynamic. Although the car can feel tippy in cornering, its stabilizer bars keep it surprisingly balanced. And its short length allows for easy traffic maneuvering, jumping into gaps too small for other cars.
If it weren't for its options, the 2011 Smart ForTwo would have been a complete failure for cabin tech. But the available navigation system, iPod support, and iPhone app all bolster it. The surround-sound audio system is a surprise feature that also contributes to its cabin tech score.
As to performance tech, the engine is only average, and the suspension is very rough. But the transmission, despite its slow shifts, pushes the tech envelope, and the electric power-steering unit also gives it a boost.
The ForTwo's real win is design. Some people might find it ugly, but it is certainly a unique car. And the two-seater practicality is really amazing, giving occupants plenty of headroom along with usable cargo space--more so than in a typical roadster.
|Model||2011 Smart ForTwo|
|Power train||1-liter 3-cylinder engine, 5 speed automated manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||33 mpg city/41 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||26 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash-based navigation|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||Optional CD/DVD|
|MP3 player support||Optional iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Two speaker standard, optional 7 speaker surround system|
|Driver aids||Park distance sensor|
|Price as tested||$19,620|