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2009 Smart ForTwo Cabriolet – Click above for high-res image gallery

The Smart ForTwo isn't for shy people. Even though Smart USA has sold about 30,000 of these tiny two-seaters in the U.S., the little rollerskate attracts a lot of attention. On the road or in America's parking lots, the ForTwo is a conversation piece, and people don't hesitate to come up and talk to you. Some will tell you about the Smart they saw in Europe. Others will ask if it has the guts to make it onto the highway. Most will assume it gets great gas mileage (it doesn't). But one thing's for certain, during our week with the ForTwo, there was a 100-percent conversation rate wherever we went. Anthropophobes, be warned.

Follow the jump to see what it's like to spend wheel time with a Smart ForTwo Cabriolet.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.

Among the myriad of questions we received, the most common area of concern centered around how safe it is. That's a fair question, considering the bigger-is-better message we've heard for years. But when you're in the Smart, you don't question its safety, you just drive. Granted, there's a slight feeling of vulnerability on the road – particularly when caught in the wind wake of semi trucks – but thanks to a deep dashboard and a distant leading edge to the windshield, the ForTwo feels bigger than it is, and about as solid as anything else on the road the majority of the time. It's only when you stop and think about the tiny narrow box you're cruising in that things get worrisome.

Still, the ForTwo has a full compliment of airbags and other active and passive safety features, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the ForTwo a four-star crash rating for the driver (three stars for the passenger), so it's hardly a death trap. Instead, it's a fun but flawed little ride, at home neither in the city nor on the highway.

It's easy (and maybe justifiable) to criticize the ForTwo. "It's only half a car," one friend joked, and the love-it-or-hate-it styling and size is the most obvious hurdle to ownership. But after driving the Smart ForTwo Passion cabrio in a variety of environments, the fog of novelty wears off and the truth is revealed: there's no ideal environment for this ultracompact runabout.

If you're a commuter in an urban area and only plan to use the ForTwo as a means to get to and from work, you could make a case for the Smart. And yes, the ForTwo could serve as a road trip machine – in a pinch. And yes, its eight cubic feet. of cargo space (12 if you fill it to the roof) is enough for a light grocery run – just don't put your ice cream at the bottom of the bags, because the ForTwo's adequate 70-hp, 1.0-liter three-cylinder sits between the rear wheels and quickly heats up the rear cargo area for insta-milkshakes. But as an everyday vehicle, the Smart ForTwo fails to stack up. And it begins with the transmission.

Although the ForTwo's automated manual gearbox has been "improved" from the 2008 model, it's still an unforgivable mess. There are two shifting options: a full automatic mode and a manual option that allows the driver to use either the steering wheel-mounted paddles or the floor-mounted shifter to change gears sans clutch. In automatic mode, the changes are inexcusably jerky, especially between first and second. Using the paddles allows for a slightly smoother shift when deftly manipulating the throttle, but manual shifting doesn't feel particularly useful, as it only allows you to choose when the hiccups happen and does little to alleviate the (neck) pain.

As you'd expect, this puts a serious chink in the ForTwo's urban armor. While its size is great for parking and the little car zips in and out of traffic with ease, in city driving, where the transmission is most active, the constant shifting makes low- to mid-speed maneuvers a torturous affair. While it might be possible to learn to live with the lurches, our week with the ForTwo wasn't enough – and we doubt any amount of time could dull the discomfort.

After answering the most common queries (What is it? Who makes it? Is it electric?), the next inevitable and justifiable question is about fuel economy. Again, the ForTwo has a surprisingly hard time justifying itself here. We averaged 35.7 mpg during our week with the car, just under the EPA's official 36 mpg combined rating. Initially, we left shifting duties to the ForTwo's computer-controlled tranny, resulting in a 32.7 mpg average. When we decided to stick the Smart Cab into the manual mode and use the paddle shifters, we managed 38.8 mpg. Maybe they're not so useless after all?

From the driver's seat, the ForTwo does its best imitation of a sleek, modern desk in some hipper-than-thou graphic designer's office. The top of the dash is expansive, and the designers completely nailed a chic, Euro-feel with the colors and layout. Virtually unchanged since the 2008 model, the gauges are stylish yet easy to read. The mid-mounted tachometer is a necessity in manual mode, since it's difficult to hear the engine crying for a change if the radio is on. The tachometer works better than the built-in indicator that flashes an "up" or "down" arrow below the speedometer when it's time to shift, as the LCD indicator is the same color and shape as the gear display and blends in. A separate colored icon, similar to what's found in modern VWs, would have been a better choice.

Other usability issues? While the visors provide an acceptable amount of shading through the windshield, they're practically useless when the glare comes in at anything beyond 11 and one o'clock. Rear visibility provided by the inside mirror isn't great, but works – except when the top is down. Two buttons by the shifter allow you to automatically fit or retract the Passion Cabriolet's top at any speed, eliminating any feeling of separation between the occupant and the environment. But when your enjoying the open-air experience, it's best to perform multiple checks when backing up or doing a lane change, as visibility becomes a finite resource. Thankfully, the ForTwo's squat footprint allows you to slide into spaces with a minimum of butt-puckering.

It's also easy to enjoy the Passion's standard audio system, which comes with a six-disc changer and an auxiliary jack in hidden in the glove box. The location of the input jack is great when you're on the road, as the iPod remains safely tucked away, but it's not so hot when stopping and starting. More than once, we left the player running because we forgot it was in the lockable glove box.

The sticker of our tester came in at $16,990, but the line ranges from $11,990 for the Pure Coupe to $20,990 for the BRABUS Cabriolet. Low sales in 2009 have prompted Smart USA to offer its first ever incentive for buyers, but even with a lower sticker, the ForTwo is difficult for us to recommend. Although some of its drawbacks disappear when you're enjoying the "ForTwo Experience", its abysmal transmission, general lack of utility and fuel economy that comes off as unimpressive for its size doesn't make a compelling case for the ForTwo. That is, unless you're a casual city driver who values fashion over function, or someone who really likes to meet new people.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.

2009 Smart ForTwo
Performance Brakes/Tires/Wheels
Engine 1.0-liter inline three Front Brakes 11-inch ventilated discs (ABS)
Configuration/Valvetrain SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder Rear Brakes 8-inch drums
Max Horsepower @ RPM 70 hp @ 5,800 RPM Wheels (front) 15x4.5-inches
Max Torque @ RPM 68 lb-ft @ 4,500 RPM Wheels (rear) 15x5.5-inches
Drive Type Rear-wheel drive Tires (front) 155/60 R15
Transmission Five-speed automated manual Tires (rear) 175/55 R15
Fuel Injection EFI
Compression Ratio 11.4:1 Exterior Dimensions
Recommended Fuel 91 octane Length 106.1 inches
Fuel Capacity 8.7 gallons (incl. 1.3 gal reserve) Width 61.4 inches
EPA Fuel Economy (city/hwy) 33/41 Height 60.7 inches
0-60 mph time (MFR est.) 12.8 seconds Wheelbase 73.5 inches
Top Speed 90 mph Curb Weight 1,808 pounds
Suspension/Steering Interior Dimensions
Front MacPherson, with anti-roll bar Maximum Seating 2
Rear DeDion axle Luggage Capacity 7.8 cu-ft
Steering Rack-and-pinion Head Room (Front/Rear) 39.7 / 0 inches
Turns Lock-to-Lock 3.4 Shoulder Room (Front/Rear) 48 / 0 inches
Turning Circle (feet) 28.7 Leg Room (Front/Rear) 41.2 / 0 inches

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      No, they dont get good MPG when you are a 22 yr old over zealous blogger with the poor car on the rev limiter the entire time :)

        • 6 Years Ago
        Add about a decade to the age of your average overzealous blogger...
        • 6 Years Ago
        Totally un-called for Lee......
      • 6 Years Ago
      We had a turbo diesel model in Canada for a few years before they switched to gas motors.. Highway mileage was 71 mpg, but i don't remember if that was imperial or US gallons.
      Jim Kilmer
      • 6 Years Ago
      The transmission is different but its not as bad as you claim. I agree a manual transmission would have been an option I would have picked if it were available when I ordered my car. And the mileage is not so bad either. I've had this car for about 5 months and have put 12,000 miles on it during that time. 40 mpg is the worst mileage I've gotten on a tank of fuel, and that's combination city-highway. Al Gore and his buddies kept the diesel engine out of the US but I would have gotten that too. If your mileage is poor, perhaps the other contributors are correct- maybe you do need to learn how to drive. Got close to 50mpg on a couple of tankfuls. It sure beats the heck out of my pickup truck (18). the seats are comfortable, the stereo is fine, the air conditioning is cold, the heater is hot, there's room in the cargo section for anything I need to carry. Now, is it the best car I've ever owned? NOT BY A COUNTRY MILE!!!! It's not a car I would want to take on a cross country trip. You can time 0-60 with a calendar. It's a little iffy in the wind. So what? I still like it very much, it fully suits my needs for a 30 mile commute(one-way). It's fun to do a full U-turn in the middle of a 2 lane street. It was cheap to buy, fully decked out at just over 16K for the Passion coupe. It's not cramped, my 270 pound frame fits with room to spare. Getting in and out of this car is easier, its more ergonomically user friendly than most other cars I have ever owned. I know you have to have something to write about, and I appreciate that it's not the car you want. Fine, then don't drive it.
      • 6 Years Ago
      We need to decide.... Safety or Economy... my 1980 Subaru Brat 4x4 gets 26 MPG / 33 MPG Highway. (original epa estimates were 26/36, but its hard to get 36) weighs 1800 Pounds and has a pickup bed. 68 HP...
      A 1966 Subaru 360 could get over 60 MPG, was tiny and weighed < 1,000 LBS. So which is it safety or mileage! Simple Physics! This thing only gets 38???? this is really sad!
        • 6 Years Ago
        It's not for everyone for sure.
        Yes... the transmission is goofy, yet one get's used to it pretty fast.
        Let's just say that in the city it won't be conducive for texting but rather one must be involved in the driving process.
        The same can be said for any stickshift.
        As for mileage, the ratings always bring it right below the Prius.
        The quality of the material is fine. It's made from recycled material and the panels can be switched to another color in a couple of hours when one gets tired of the original.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I don't care if the dash is colorful and cute, it is still made of the cheapest, crappiest plastic ever used in a car in the history of the world.

      And yeah, that trannie is garbage. I drove one of these around europe - in a way it's fun but only because you know you don't own the piece of crap. After that experience I'd never buy it.
        • 6 Years Ago
        "I don't care if the dash is colorful and cute, it is still made of the cheapest, crappiest plastic ever used in a car in the history of the world."

        I find that hard to believe, I've been in a Caliber.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Not to mention lackluster mileage.

        I'll take a nearly 20-year-old CR-X and get 40/47mpg (plus some fun) over a Fortwo.
      • 6 Years Ago
      this is another post, as so many other around here,
      BEFORE to write about this car everone should drive it for 1-2 weeks.
      IF you live in a town, you drive for 15-20 minutes to go to work alone ... you could only love this car.
      otherwise, yes, please, look out there for other car.

      • 6 Years Ago
      -I just rechecked the smart community websites: Surprise Surprise ;Nobody is mentioning 32 MPG. Aaaand as you might have guessed; there is no evidence of saving 6MPG from paddle shifting.
      • 6 Years Ago
      While I completely agree with your assessment of the nearly worthless sunvisors, I don't think you gave the smart much of a chance before you tested it. As a smart owner living in Phoenix and driving 28 miles to work each day, I'm averaging 40-41mpg per tank (and I do usually hit some rush hour traffic). No car is going to achieve its mpg rating if you drive it like a blown '55 Chevy. The transmission, while a little annoying at times, is acceptable. What gets me is that people say it doesn't get "that great" of gas mileage. It's the most fuel-efficient, gas-powered car in America last I checked. And it's at least $5k less than a microwave on wheels (Prius). Personally, I prefer the roller skate.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I considered passing on the opportunity to comment here but after giving the matter a little thought I have to say that I sort of....well almost.... kind of agree with some of the points made by the reviewer. However, I disagree sufficiently to warrant adding my 2 cents to this thread.

      Because my "2 cents" comes with more than 18 months behind the wheel of a 2008 Passion Coupe and five months with a 2009 Brabus Coupe I am somewhat qualified to speak on the Fortwo - perhaps even more so than say someone opining on the subject without ever driving - let alone owning - the Smart Fortwo. Ouch! Did I just say that? Ok, may I am just a little biased. I waited more than 10 years to have the opportunity to buy a Smart so I have had a great fondness for the concept and execution of the Smart for longer than most (in America). I first set in an early production model in London back in 1997, and even then had high hopes of the Smart coming to the US one day.

      To the review. To be fair, I don't care for the 2008's "lurch-o-matic tranny" that today - even after the 2.0 upgrade - still exhibits, albeit more rarely, an inability to settle on a gear. Nor do I care for the less than stellar mileage. Other than these two points, I don't have any real complaints. Yes, the car rides like a bucking horse at times. And, I share the concerns noted by the reviewer regarding wind buffeting and a general uneasiness around large trucks. My Rx for such anxiety is to keep to the back streets and off the Beltway. The Brabus is an entirely different story - its better suspension, wider and taller wheels and tires and lowered stance make for a solid driving experience. Highly recommended, and the car Penske should have brought in from the start.

      The above notwithstanding, after 18 months as a Smart owner (I still have both) I still love the Fortwo. Nevertheless - being totally honest - I would be hard pressed to recommend the Smart to a prospective purchaser where the person intends to use the Smart as the primary (only) vehicle. The obvious caveat here is where the prospective "buyer" lives, works and rarely strays outside of an urban environment. Under that scenario I could easily recommend the Smart. By way of example, Washington DC is an excellent fit. I live in No. VA and commute into Washington daily. While I drive at least one of my Smart cars two to three times per week, I also own a 2007 Toyota Tundra double cab and my wife drives a VW Passat 4motion for the heavy slogging. I like to think that the Smarts keep my carbon footprint karma in balance.

      I will close with this - if you like the idea of a small, somewhat utilitarian automobile give the Smart Fortwo a look. We Americans must adopt (really, accept) the idea of a smaller, more fuel efficient form of transportation. Our European friends have many wonderful small automobiles to pick from. Perhaps the Smart Fortwo is not the answer for everyone, but if the American public accepts the idea of a quality, well built and fuel efficient mode of transportation, that is to say “smaller,” we will see more "choices" come to our shores. Now if Penske will hurry the Smart EV along!

      My 2 cents.

      • 6 Years Ago
      The trouble with reviewing this car in the U.S. is that it was designed for a type of driver that doesn't really exist here. Namely, the urbanite whose cities' congestion and parking fees make a bus the most likely alternative, and who, when traveling long-distance, would rather take a (fast, cheap, comfortable) train anyway.

      Common enough in Europe; not in a country where cities are designed for cars and mass transit stinks. It's too bad the Smart comes off as such a faddish hipster accessory as a result.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I sat in one at the NAAS and was suprised at the room in side. I'm a big guy 6'1" wide shoulders and wide everything else it felt roomy. I was also suprised by the milage, it seems really low for its size. I could see it being practical for some people but I agree with others, a Yaris, Fit, Mini or the Fiesta when it comes here would be better for most. Those extra seats and cargo room are nice. I think for a cheap high milage 2 seater with little cargo room, I'll still go with a motorcycle.
      • 6 Years Ago
      -Smart has been the answer to my prayers.

      -MPG improves once the engine is broken in: 375 mile range from 9 gallons.

      -You know It CAN be utilitarian; whether transporting 31"x31" attic fan from Home Deeper, Long Guns to and from a rural outdoor range, or transferring full square shopping carts full of groceries including a mop (it can fit TWO carts full before it obscures the rear view mirror)

      -accelerate as fast as thy will on the highway onramp , Rear Wheel Drive keeps it planted anyway :p

      -Rush hour? hahahaha! My Ninja can't claim exclusivity in the lane splitting department.

      -the only downside is the 93MPH governor. Road trips can mean sitting on the governor for a half hour.

      **Dissenting opinions should be welcomed regardless; remember the 1st Honda Accords?
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