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Smart Car Logic CR

We all agree the Smart Car is a crowd pleaser, and a true head turner. Nevertheless, Consumer Reports magazine expresses a different viewpoint. With issues like premium fuel, limited seating for two, humble cargo space and the premium prices charged, makes them ask! Is Smart really that Smart?

Source: Consumer Reports June 2008

Smart ForTwo Despite gasoline prices, smaller doesn’t always mean better

The Smart ForTwo is a long-awaited minicar that's been buzzing around European streets since 1998, where its diminutive size, small-displacement engines, and distinct design have given it unique appeal. With elevated gasoline prices in the United States, the arrival of the second-generation Smart car is well timed, and initial sales have exceeded company expectations.

Made in France by a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz, the new Smart ForTwo arrived Stateside in spring 2008.

We're testing a model called the "Passion Coupe," a two-seater powered by a 71-hp, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine coupled to an automated manual transmission. The price came to $15,355 including shipping.

Initial impressions. Measuring 40 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper, the Smart ForTwo combines flashy styling and clever packaging, though it disappoints with dynamics and overall value.

Despite its tiny size, the high seating position makes you feel you're sitting in a small SUV. Generous glass, including a see-through roof, gives good visibility and a light, airy feel to the interior.
The cabin is narrow, though, so having two people aboard makes for an intimate driving experience, although the seats themselves are comfortable. A very small turning circle makes it possible to pull a U-turn in your driveway.

A car like this should be fun and zippy. Sadly, the Smart is neither. The ride is harsh, and broken urban pavement, this car's natural habitat, pummels occupants mercilessly. The transmission shifts strangely, with pauses and heaves between gears. Handling is not so responsive, and it takes a lot of wheel winding to coax the Smart through corners. The slow, noisy engine makes it necessary to plan ahead when merging into traffic, although once on the highway it can keep up the pace.

Fuel consumption is a high point. So far we've been averaging 38 mpg. The EPA rates this Smart at 33 in the city, 41 on the highway. However, the economy Smart requires premium fuel.

Crash test results are quite sound. The Smart scored a Good in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal offset and demanding side-impact crash tests. However, the front test is based on colliding into a car of the same size. That means "Good" if you crash into another Smart. A giant SUV might be another story.

CR's take: Despite its many quirks, the Smart can be rather endearing. But from a strictly practical standpoint, the Smart ForTwo is not so smart. Premium fuel eats up a good part of the savings from its excellent fuel economy. The car seats only two and provides modest cargo space. Although it won't gather a crowd of gawkers, we think a far smarter choice is the Honda Fit (due to be redesigned for 2009). The current Fit costs about the same amount, gets 32 mpg (34 with a stick shift), and has none of the Smart's drawbacks.

The Dallas Morning News reporter Terry Box’s report tells us the Smart car is entertaining but lack some needed power?

Smart Fortwo is amusing but underpowered.

Maybe I'm not so smart after all.

The Smart Fortwo's best attribute may be as a conversation piece, even though it gets 41 miles per gallon highway.

That won't surprise many of the teachers who suffered along with me during my seven-year trek through college – which included, by the way, attending a wonderfully loud, raw ZZ Top concert in the early '70s in the English Auditorium at North Texas State. (I had a much greater appreciation for English after that.)

At any rate, I have long argued that small, light cars are far better than big fat ones. After all, my 300-horsepower car would be a whole lot quicker, more nimble and more fun if it weighed 3,000 pounds rather than 3,500.

And now, with all of us at the mercy of the, uh, barons at Big Oil and the pinstripes on Wall Street, small also can save gas.

I really thought tiny was tops. Then one day recently, a Smart Fortwo Passion coupe showed up here at the Daily Planet.

Take a long look at this dinky vehicle because if you buy one, you should be prepared to incite little riots everywhere you go.

I view the Smart as kind of a cross between a golf cart and a big psychedelic bubble. It is so small I'm not sure it can even cast a shadow.

With a total length of 8.8 feet, the Smart, in fact, is 4 feet shorter than an old VW Beetle.

When people see one in traffic, they point and smile – or laugh. I imagined occupants of the Escalades around me shouting excitedly to each other, "Hey, look at the midget in the clown car!"

But with fuel consumption of 33 miles per gallon city, 41 highway, I figured I might at least get the last laugh. And believe me, this car is good for all kinds of grins.

As I stepped from the Smart after my first drive around downtown, I was inclined to ask anyone nearby if they had seen the rest of my foursome.

I was tempted once – or maybe two or three times – to lean out of the car and shout, "Quick, which way to the circus? I got six guys with big noses and yellow shoes waiting on me."

You get the idea. As far as I can tell, the two-passenger, 1,800-pound Smart is the smallest vehicle available on the U.S. new-car market.

At a price of $14,235, it seems reasonably priced and can carry two people in comfort in a cabin that offers surprisingly generous head and legroom. The car, which has been in Europe for a decade or so, is meant to be a sort of mini urban runabout that zips effortlessly through city traffic, parking in places no normal car could squeeze into.

It is powered, unfortunately, by a 1-liter, three-cylinder engine that squeezes out 70 modest horsepower and is tied to a cantankerous five-speed "automatic manual" transmission that in automatic mode shifts roughly with weird gaps between gears. (It reminded me of my little grandmother in Georgetown, rowing the three-speed box in her old Studebaker Lark. We kids did a lot of bobbing and snapping in the back.)

So what you do with the Smart is drive it with wild abandon – kind of like an Italian in Rome after two glasses of wine at lunch.

The little engine shudders flatly to life and offers no real torque or power, so flat-out driving in city traffic won't even get you in much trouble.

If you use the paddle shifts on the steering wheel and shift at 6,000 rpm with your foot flat on the accelerator, you can kind of buzz your way up to 40 in amusing fashion.

Several times, I went through the first three gears with my foot on the floor and still did not exceed the speed limit. That's mostly because the Smart is lugging nearly 26 pounds per horsepower – a worse power-to-weight ratio than many large, V-6-powered SUVs – and requires a geriatric 14.4 seconds to reach 60 mph.

Nonetheless, the steering is wonderfully light and felt firmly connected to the front wheels. Moreover, the Smart has a turning radius so good you could do doughnuts and figure eights in your bad neighbor's front yard.

Likewise, I thought the brakes were pretty decent – something you think about on the North Dallas Crawlway. (The Smart is so round I figured that if a big Bimmer bunted me from behind, I might fly into downtown Dallas faster than I could drive.)

Still, the fact is, 30,000 Americans have supposedly plunked down $99 deposits on the Smart, and the carlets are more or less sold out in Dallas for the next year. Can cute possibly be that compelling?

Maybe. In a weird pod-car way, the Smart is not bad-looking. It's contemporary and hip and fresh. The exterior panels on mine – which can be changed for those of a different color – were painted blue and silver, and the dinky car sported nice-looking 15-inch alloy wheels and smallish 155/60 tires.

Although the car's single exhaust pipe was no bigger around than an elementary school pencil, this is no low-tech Euro slug.

(As most of you know, Smart is owned by Daimler, the parent company of high-flying Mercedes-Benz.)

Among the car's features are a steel cage that surrounds the passenger compartment and enhances safety, stability and traction-control systems, front and side airbags, ABS, tire-pressure monitors, heated mirrors and intermittent wipers.

I thought the interior was nicely done – and probably the best thing on the Smart. Mine had seats covered in some sort of interesting dotted tan cloth that seemed to have made the long, hard trip from the '70s in fine shape.

Behind them was a cargo shelf that was about three feet deep and would work well for small trips to the grocery store. The car also was equipped with a great three-spoke steering wheel and wonderfully functional climate controls.

Its most surprising aspect was a relatively poor ride, which was not really harsh but could be irritatingly choppy on city streets. (Isn't this thing supposed to be a city car capable of dealing with bad pavement and bus ruts?)

My guess is most Smart buyers will purchase the car as a second or third vehicle, using it for occasional trips into the city. With a 91-mph top speed, it will never be anyone's first choice for a run to West Texas.

The fact is, though, you could buy other cars for about the same money that are equipped with back seats and real engines and get about as good gas mileage – such as the $12,210 Toyota Yaris.

But with niche cars like the Smart, I guess cute counts. And for now, it counts big.

Source: The Dallas Morning News by Terry Box

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