An impractical oversized roller skate or the future of urban motoring? The Smart Car is part of the permanent exhibits at New York's Museum of Modern Art , so clearly someone quite likes it. Opinions on the Smart ForTwo differ, but what's fact is that it's going on sale in the United States next year as both a coupe and a cabrio.
However, Americans aren't getting the same versions that were launched in Europe nine years ago. Despite looking almost identical, this is the all-new MkII Smart and it shares only 10 percent of parts with the original model. Telling the two part is a challenge; at the front the orange indicator lamps have been integrated into the headlights. At the side the door handle is now horizontal not vertical, and at the back there are only two lamps on each side, not three. And that's it.
The biggest difference is in overall size. Stand the two cars next to each other and you'll see the newcomer is 7.5 inches longer. At least a third of that has been used up at the front end so the car will meet U.S. impact regulations. It's also allowed for the creation of a larger trunk. The car is also more than an inch wider, which means driver and passenger won't be rubbing shoulders quite so much.
The engine has been changed, too. The tiny 660-cc unit of the MkI car has been replaced by a 1.0-liter unit bought in from Mitsubishi. It's available in outputs of 61, 71, and 84 hp, the latter being turbocharged. It doesn't sound much in the way of power, but as this car weighs next to nothing it's plenty.
Anyone who has driven a Smart ForTwo previously will also be pleased the transmission has been changed. One of the biggest criticisms of the old car was its jerky automatic gearchange, which was so pronounced it left drivers swaying backwards and forwards every time it shifted.
Driving it to the States
We had the chance to try both the 71- and 84-hp cars during our test drive. Both are excellent at round-town speeds, though the more powerful engine gives you that extra acceleration if you want to take advantage of a gap in the traffic. It's a fun experience, and if driving it doesn't put a smile on your face the improved fuel consumption figures should.
Despite being the top spec model you still get 57.6 mpg, and not surprisingly it's the pick of the pair on the open road, too. The smaller-engined model is OK, but it gets noisy at higher speeds and on long inclines you have to manually override the gearbox and drop from fifth to fourth gear to keep momentum.
The Smart is still not really a highway vehicle -- top speed is 90 mph -- and while it will happily cover long distances, it's not something to be recommended. The ride is quite jiggly and it gets a bit wearing. The seats aren't the most comfortable either. They're the sort you sit on rather than in, and while they're supportive behind they offer nothing under the thighs.
Not much bigger
Practicality is never going to be the Smart's strong suit. Cargo space has gone up from 5.3 to 7.8 cubic feet, and that does make a difference, but it's still only enough for a couple of soft bags. The dashboard has been redesigned because of American crash regulations about unrestrained occupants, but unfortunately that hasn't meant an increase in the number of cubby holes. There's a new modular system with storage bins that pivot around a central point, but they're too small to be really useful. A can of deicer and not much else will fit in the glovebox, and doorbins are pretty much for decoration only. The three trim levels -- Pure, Pulse and Passion -- remain unchanged.
Upgrading the Smart ForTwo wasn't meant to be a big revamp, because bosses believe the concept of a tiny two-seater city car is still the main attraction. Features like the upholstery on the dashboard, the central ignition point and the split tailgate are all still there. What Smart has done is make it more eco-friendly and better to drive.
Prices will be broadly in line with current model, which means from around 10,500 euros to 15,000 euros for the mainstream models that don't include Brabus versions. And that's where potential buyers start to get put off. In Europe , that's the same sort of money you'd pay for a Ford Ka, Citroen C1, or a Toyota Aygo. They're perfectly respectable and popular city runabouts, but they've got some distinct advantages over the smart. Firstly, they're more comfortable on the highways, and secondly, they're all four-seaters with decent trunk space.
The Smart ForTwo is a premium product and is priced accordingly, and you can argue that it does make a lot of sense if you live in a city, have one child or less and want something that will do almost 60 mpg. But for families, or anyone who carries any kind of luggage regularly, it's only really practical as a second or third car -- and that's not very eco-friendly at all.
As for the future, Smart is known to be developing a stop-start model for launch in Europe next year, to cut emissions and boot fuel economy. An electric plug-in variant is expected by 2011 at the latest.
2008 Smart ForTwo
Base price: $25,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.0-liter three-cylinder, 84 hp/88 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 105 x 61 x 60 in
Wheelbase: 73 in
Curb weight: 1653 lb
Fuel economy: 50 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, stability control and brake assist; dual front airbags (head and thorax bags optional in Europe; est. standard in U.S.)
Major standard equipment: Remote central locking; panoramic roof; audio system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper