Review: Smart Fortwo adds up to something interesting

The Smart Fortwo is the smallest car around.

A SMART IDEA:  The Smart Fortwo is the smallest car around. It appropriately features a pug nose. The doors take up most of each side, but there is plenty of room for two inside. You can see the retracted top in the rear-facing photo.
A SMART IDEA: The Smart Fortwo is the smallest car around. It appropriately features a pug nose. The doors take up most of each side, but there is plenty of room for two inside. You can see the retracted top in the rear-facing photo. –Bill Griffith

Today’s test car had the neighborhood wise guys (and gals) in full voice.

Everyone had a comment, question, and/or opinion.

“How much space is there inside?” Plenty.

“I wouldn’t feel safe on the highway.” Neither did we … at first.

“It’s so small, especially in back. Don’t you feel exposed and vulnerable?” Yes, especially when there’s a big vehicle tailgating.

“How much does it cost?” Let’s get into that later.

Folks, it’s a smartfortwo cabrio. And, yes, its proper name is allruntogether. It’s also lowercase, says its manufacturer—Mercedes-Benz—and not the work of a trying-to-be-funny reviewer. However, as we progress in our journey, for the psychic sanity of our editor, we’ll refer to it as the Smart Fortwo.

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We first saw the Smart’s predecessor in Italy 20 years ago when it was introduced as the Swatch car.

Even in that land (and time) of teeny cars, it stood apart.

MODERN ART: Inside, the Smart Fortwo runs to plastics and vinyl, with a charmingly styled gauge package but no rearview camera. —Bill Griffith

In Milan, we saw it for sale in a trendy downtown boutique and had to investigate.

When we asked if it would be exported to the United States, the answer was, no, because it didn’t meet US standards.

That eventually changed and 20 years later we found ourselves tooling around last week in the Smart Fortwo cabrio.

If we’d been in Boston, a convertible might have been a turnoff, even during this relatively mild winter. However, we are in Southwest Florida and a convertible was welcome.

Its two-stage fabric roof was perhaps the highest quality of anything inside the cabin. Of course, that’s not a surprise, given that it’s a product of the good folks at Haartz Corporation, the Acton-based world leader in interior and convertible fabrics.

Hit the button once, and the top retreats like a fabric sunroof. Hit the button a second time and it folds back upon itself just above the small rear trunk that sits above the rear engine. The whole process takes just 12 seconds, and the manufacturer says it can be accomplished while driving at top speed.

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The roof rails can be removed and stashed inside the tailgate to further the open-air experience.

Speaking of that engine, it’s a turbocharged .9-liter, 3-cylinder French-built affair that has been upgraded over the years to 89 horsepower and 100 lb.-ft. of torque.

You can hear some readers snickering now, but the fact is that it has plenty of power to push this 1,808-pound vehicle along quite nicely.

The power isn’t the problem, but the refinement is.

When you start out, there’s a bit of lag when you push the accelerator. It’s not the hesitation that drivers used to bemoan when cars still had carburetors. It’s more that the engine control setup needs tweaking along with eliminating some low-rpm engine vibration.

Try to feather the throttle and you wind up with a very slow start. Hit it hard and you get a fast-but-jerky trip up to 15 or 20 miles per hour. Because this is a vehicle designed for city driving and ease of parking, this definitely constitutes a drawback.

The engine isn’t particularly noisy, but it’s not a pleasing sound, either.

Once in motion, both the engine and 6-speed dual-clutch transmission work smoothly.

We averaged 37.2 miles per gallon in around-town driving. We passed on taking the Smart Fortwo on the week’s lengthy road trip. On second thought, if we had it to do over, we’d have driven it because the car is surprisingly stable on the highway.

Despite its size—or lack thereof—the Smart Fortwo is sturdy with its use of high-strength steel and the tridion safety cell construction. That safety cell actually reflects unibody construction.

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It leaves plenty of space for occupants.

Open the door—which basically is the entire side of the car—and it’s easy to enter and exit the vehicle. Legroom is more than ample, though the driver’s footrest is positioned so taller drivers can’t straighten their left leg.

Mrs. G and I found it quite comfortable inside. A pair of wider occupants might find themselves rubbing shoulders because the Smart Fortwo is narrow at 61.4 inches, more than a foot narrower than the average vehicle.

Interior design is pretty much straight out of the Jetsons, with metal and plastic abounding. If the overall design was by Jetson, the gauges were by Disney—that is, goofy.

The speedometer looked like the outer rim of one the protractors we used in old-time geometry and physics classes. (You young’uns can Google “protractor” if necessary).

Inside that protractor was a square pad with tiny time, temperature, and digital speed information and, for some reason, a pair of large odometers (overall and trip). The gas gauge is a row of dots.

Atop the dashboard at the far left was a circular tachometer with a clock inset.

Our model was the lower-end Passion ($18,900). You could step up to the Prime ($19,900) or Proxy ($20,900). Add a $750 destination charge to each.

A long list of options brought our bottom line to $22,170 and made our Passion pretty much the equal of the higher priced versions with the exception of leather seats. The option list included an armrest, smartphone cradle, fog lamps, rain and light sensors (for wipers and headlights), a proximity warning function, automatic transmission, upgraded sound system, and heated front seats.

Missing—and missed—was a rearview camera, especially with the small glass window in the convertible top and big blind spots on each side for the rear roof pillar and convertible top.

On the road, the short wheelbase and stiff suspension combine to make the Smart Fortwo vulnerable to sharp jounces on big bumps, but on good roads—which we had in Florida—the ride was quite comfortable.

The turning radius of 22.8 feet is the narrowest we’ve encountered and the car is a breeze to park.

The bottom line is that this may be the smallest vehicle available these days but it has a way of growing on you.

2017 Smart Fortwo Cabrio

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $19,650/$22,170. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 33 city/38 highway/35 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 37.2. Drivetrain: .9-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel-drive. Body: 2-passenger convertible.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 89. Torque: 100 lb.-ft. Overall length: 106.1 in. Wheelbase: 73.5 in. Height: 60.7 in. Width: 61.4 in. Curb weight: 1,808 lbs.

THE GOOD

Size and parking ability, gets as much attention as a Ferrari, as affordable a convertible as you’ll find.

THE BAD

Gives you a jolt on bumps, rear blind spots, engine not refined when starting off.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Small car, big attention-getter.

ALSO CONSIDER

Chevrolet Spark, Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Mini Cooper, Toyota Yaris.

 Bill Griffith can be reached at wgriff@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrAutoWriter.