Teeny-tiny Cars: Are they cheap and fuel-efficient enough to justify their drawbacks?

The San Francisco US press launch of the teeny-tiny two-seat 2008 Smart Fortwo involved an interesting presentation and drive experience. I learned that its history dates back to the late 1980s when SMH (Swatch watches) CEO Nicolas Hayek decided that a substantial number of people wanted a small, stylish city car that was built like a Swatch watch with Swatch-type personalization.

Hayek obtained backing from, first, Volkswagen and, later, Daimler-Benz to launch the first production model in 1998. Since then, several variants have come and gone, but only the second-generation Fortwo survives... until the promised next-generation arrive. The Fortwo meets all safety rules despite its diminutive size and weight, so Smart cars have been marketed in Asia, North and South America, Australia and Europe, and an electric version is now available.

I also learned that never in the brand's 15-year history has it turned a profit, even in space-limited, high-fuel-cost Europe and Japan. So, why did Daimler (and former US Smart importer Roger Penske) believe that this teeny-tiny two-passenger roller skate could be profitable in North America? Penske makes precious few bad business decisions, but I was skeptical.

Smart Fortwo Cityflame

Still, I left San Fransisco mildly impressed. With good head, leg and shoulder room for two adults, it doesn't feel cramped inside. And it can get up to speed and run with freeway traffic without getting blown around too badly by big trucks. On the other hand, with just 70 horses from the 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder engine between its rear wheels, it's painfully slow, and its 5-speed, self-shifting manual transmission is slow, rough and generally disagreeable. It also offers no back seat and next to no cargo room, and – despite Daimler's impressive efforts at making it crash-worthy – it's still the pin when a larger, heavier vehicle (virtually any other vehicle) belts it like a bowling ball.

So I decided that the Smart Fortwo's only redeeming value is its tiny exterior size in crowded cities.

It's also not all that cheap (starting under $14,000) or fuel efficient (the EPA says 34 city, 38 highway) compared to today's wide selection of much more pleasant and practical 5-seat subcompact cars. So I decided then (and believe today) that the Smart Fortwo's only redeeming social value is the usefulness of its tiny exterior size to crowded city dwellers. They can park the car in places where other cars can't fit, and wedge two of them into a single parking space.

As predicted by most, Smarts have been a tough sell in the US, even when gas prices climbed over $4. Fewer than 4,500 have been sold in the first half of 2013, and usually astute businessman Penske has long since thrown in his (not so) smart towel and moved on. But what about the handful of other sub-subcompact cars available here today?

2012 Scion iQ

The two-foot-longer, 94-hp, 4-cylinder Scion iQ (by Toyota) is almost as easy to park and much more pleasant to drive, but $3,000 more expensive. Its most important advantage over the Smart is clever packaging and unique "3+1" offset seating that can accommodate one adult behind a front passenger and a child (or small package) behind the driver. Yet the iQ's 2013 U.S. sales have been dismal at just 2,309 in the first six months of 2013.

Another 20 inches longer and seven ponies more potent is the (Mexican-built) four-seat Italian Fiat 500, whose history goes back to the first model in 1957. With its little engine tucked between its rear wheels, it was cute, fuel efficient and easy to park, and you could cram a family of four into it (if the kids were small) and get them where they needed to be.

With cute styling and decent performance and ride, but a near-unusable back seat, the Fiat 500 is selling reasonably well.

Launched in Europe in 2007, the modern 500 is larger and much better with a 101-hp modern transverse-front-engine powertrain, and (after a 27-year absence from the US market) Fiat brought it here for 2012. With cute styling and decent performance and ride, but a near-unusable back seat, it's selling reasonably well after a slow start with nearly 22,000 delivered in the first half. The 2013 500e electric model is surprisingly likeable and (with incentives) affordable, and a larger 500L (on a different platform) has been added for 2014.

cevy spark ev

Another five inches longer and way roomier inside, the five-passenger (Korean-built) Chevrolet Spark is base-priced way down with the Smart at about $13,000. It's a sporty five-door hatchback with a usable back seat and cool connectivity capabilities, and the EV version sports a 100-kW (130-hp) General Motors electric motor powered by a 20-kWh lithium ion battery. Nearly 18,000 gas-engine Sparks have been sold in the first six months of 2013.

Two years after the original Fiat 500's debut, a more technically sophisticated British rival followed. It was the first-ever car with its engine mounted transversely (sideways) up front, driving its front wheels, for more stable handling and a much better interior package in a very small exterior size. Called the Mini, it was sold all over the world, and that clever transverse-front-engine concept motivates the vast majority of cars, minivans and crossovers today.

After a long hiatus, that trend-setting Mini was reincarnated by new-owner BMW for 2002. Larger, better and more powerful (especially turbocharged Cooper S models), this new Mini Cooper scores surprisingly strong sales as a rare exception to the rule that Americans won't pay much for little cars. Still, it's too expensive, its agile "go-kart" handling is offset by coal-cart ride, and its abysmal interior ergonomics may the industry's worst. Now with a whole range of models ranging from the base hardtop to a 4-door Clubman CUV to a low volume Mini E, nearly 32,000 have been sold in the first half of 2013.

All things considered among this bunch, I prefer the Spark.

All things considered among this bunch, I prefer the Spark for its toy-bulldog styling, its two additional doors, its surprisingly serviceable back seat and its very reasonable price. The Smart is rehab on wheels, the iQ looks odd but drives well, the Fiat is back-seat-challenged and the pricey, stylish great-handling Mini is ruined by its rough ride and horrible controls.

But the bottom line for me remains: unless you need a teeny-tiny car (or EV) to wedge into hard-to-find parking slots in crowded cities, why not go for one of the many excellent size-larger subcompacts with real back seats, real cargo room and equivalent or better fuel efficiency for about the same money? To illustrate, I slipped the specs of one excellent new example (the 2014 Nissan Versa Note) into the chart for comparison. You make the call.

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