Bosch is one of the world's biggest automotive suppliers and one of their product lines is fuel and engine management systems particularly for diesel engines. As such they have a vested interest in promoting the sales of vehicles using their diesel hardware like fuel injectors and exhaust after-treatment hardware. As part of their efforts to build a market for diesels in the US, they have compiled a press fleet comprised of European vehicles with diesel that they are letting Americans drive to demonstrate how powerful and refined modern diesels have become.
Many if not most Americans still have an image of diesels as noisy, smelly, soot belching and slow. I got to spend a couple of days with a pair of modern diesel-powered cars that pretty much dispel that image. The 2007 Chrysler 300 CRD and 2006 Smart ForTwo CDi are about as different in size and personality as two cars can be. Most Americans are familiar with the brash distinctly American styling of the 300, but have never experienced the European incarnation propelled by a 3.0L turbo-diesel V-6 sourced from the Mercedes product line. The Smart ForTwo is a tiny machine that Canadians have known for a couple of years and most Americans are seeing for the first time this year as SmartUSA does a summer road show before beginning sales early in 2008.
Read our initial impressions of the Chrysler 300 and Smart ForTwo diesels after the break.
The Chrysler 300 has been available with the Mercedes V-6 diesel since its European introduction several years ago and the oil burner is the most popular variant in the land of $6-7 a gallon gasoline capturing over half of all sales. The 3.0L common rail direct injection diesel is available in a wide variety of Mercedes models in Europe and is coming to the US market in the E, ML and GL class vehicles as well as the Jeep Grand Cherokee which recently went on sale. In the 300 it is rated at 215hp and 376lb-ft of torque almost matching the larger thirstier 5.7L Hemi. The best part is the fuel economy of 26.2/42.8 mpg city/highway. That's something no Hemi can match unless the engine is off and the car is rolling downhill in neutral.
Starting the engine is a revelation. From inside at idle the engine is barely audible and even flooring the accelerator (no throttle on a diesel) only provides a muted growl. No clatter, shaking or other nastiness. Standing outside the engine produces a light ticking sound but nothing like the bucket of bearings sound you get with many older diesels. At the exhaust pipes there was no smell and no black soot getting past the standard particulate filter. On the road the inherently strong diesel torque makes itself useful with effortless acceleration when needed. If not for the subtle graphics covering the side of the car, most people would never know this was a diesel.
It's too bad the 300 CRD is not available in this market because it would probably be a popular option for Chrysler. Getting into the 300 was easy and the interior roominess feels comparable to the Ford Five Hundred/Taurus except for the head room. Like the Ford, the seats in the 300 sit well up off the floor giving you a chair-like position. The seats are very comfortable and the bolsters on the seat back hold you in position without feeling confining. The chopped roof-line that gives the 300 its distinct profile does cut into visibility to the back and sides.
The Smart ForTwo that Bosch provided for evaluation was a "sportier" Brabus edition equipped with an 800cc three cylinder turbo-diesel cranking out 40hp and 74lb-ft of torque. The engine sits between the rear wheels and transfers what power it has by way of a six speed automatic clutch manual gearbox. The box can be sequentially shifted in manual mode by either flicking the shift lever forward and back or tapping on the paddles on the back of suede wrapped the steering wheel. If you're feeling lazy, just press the button on the side of the shift knob and the transmission will shift itself. Unfortunately this is no Ferrari F1 gearbox. The shifts are best described as leisurely when in manual mode and less than smooth in automatic.
To describe the Smart as small doesn't even begin to describe the situation. The ForTwo easily fits within the 120" wheelbase of the 300 with nearly two feet to spare. In spite of its diminutive package, the car is remarkably roomy for a driver and passenger. There is plenty of headroom under the glass roof and the few controls available are within easy reach. The typically obtuse German radio however doesn't seem to be able to be tuned manually to any frequency. It can only scan which makes it hard to set to a frequency for an iPod FM transmitter. Behind the seats is good-sized package shelf above the engine compartment. The biggest annoyance of the interior is the center of the dash mounting of the tachometer. Designers need to learn that primary gauges such as speedometers and tachs belong directly in front of the driver, not off to the side.
Although Volkswagen may think of the New Beetle as the heir to the original Type 1 VeeDub, it's really nothing more than than a dressed up Golf masquerading as a bug. The true descendant of the air-cooled icon is the Smart ForTwo diesel. The minimalist interior and the general feel of driving the ForTwo is very reminiscent of the Beetle. Acceleration is something that's carefully considered and then doled out sparingly by the drivetrain. The ride is firm and electronic stability control has been standard on all Smarts since they launched. The short wheelbase and upright stance do combine for some squat and dive during acceleration and braking as well as during shifts with the semi-automatic. Hopefully the manual gearbox would allow the driver to manipulate the clutch in a smoother fashion eliminating some of that behavior.
The three banger diesel is louder than the one in the 300 but given the location directly behind the seats that's to be expected. In city driving it's fine, but on the freeway the buzz can get tiresome after a while. This is definitely a car that's perfect people who live in a city and just need to get around town. The compact dimensions make sliding into a parking spot that SUV drivers would just cruise past a breeze. This first-generation model is rated at 56mpg combined on EU cycle while the new second generation diesel model is now up to 71mpg.
Americans might be concerned about the safety of such a small car, but that really shouldn't be a problem. The Smart has a full steel cage that does a remarkably good job of protecting the occupants. It has been crash tested repeatedly and the video of one crashing into a Mercedes E-Class (more than twice as heavy) in a 40mph offset frontal impact shows the doors could still open and close and the passengers would be OK. If you've got a long highway commute this isn't the car for you. If you live in town and need to get the office or store, it may well be ideal. We're looking forward to a full test the US spec 2008 model to see what's been improved.
- AFVI Show: Video of our quick drive in the Brabus-converted Smart fortwo
- Bosch introduces new start-stop system
- Chrysler evaluating diesel powered 300 in US market
- Used Chrysler 300 diesel sells for more than new in UK