Thursday, February 21, 2013

Is Buying a Smart Fortwo a Smart Idea?

2013 smart forjeremy, a winged version of the fortwo. Photo courtesy Daimler Group

I remember several years ago the huge fury of enthusiasm Daimler whipped up here in the United States just before introducing its smart fortwo mini-car. It's a subtle yet significant marketing strategy that Daimler does not capitalize the first letters in "smart" or "fortwo" as if to stress the diminutive nature of the car. Conversely, BMW insists on capitalizing all of the letters in "MINI" like it has some complex with building mini-cars, which would explain why MINIs have been steadily growing in size over the past several years.

But back to the smart car marketing push. I noticed so many people I knew who didn't normally care about cars start to become extremely excited about the fortwo. The smart fortwo was like the anti-car here in the United States, a tiny little thing that didn't boast power or performance prestige but instead a small price tag and huge fuel mileage promises. Funny enough, in my own anecdotal experience the hype has died down significantly since the fortwo launched in the U.S. for the 2008 model year. The novelty of the car seems to  have worn off.

I occasionally see a fortwo on the roads around here and my kids ask excitedly what the toy car next to us is. As I drive past the smart I wonder to myself how happy the person driving it is, particularly if he has owned the car for a while . Maybe it's just me, but the smart fortwo seems like a wonderfully impractical vehicle.

A long time ago I used to own a Honda CRX. It only had two seats, but the car was literally like driving a go-cart (no power steering included) and got incredible gas mileage. Unlike the smart fortwo, it had a big hatch with a large cargo area I could load up with all sorts of things. The fortwo has just seven cubic feet of storage space with the passenger seat upright. The interior is actually fairly spacious considering how small the car is, with even someone my size able to sit in it comfortably (I'm over six feet tall).

In this day-and-age I and many other car shoppers consider certain creature comforts as necessities in cars. In particular I wouldn't buy a car without air conditioning or a radio, but if you want to buy a base smart fortwo those are considered options you're going to have to shell out for. Not that there aren't other cars on the market that are the same way, mind you.

People buy a smart fortwo for economical reasons, and while it does achieve an EPA estimated 34 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, it isn't like that's out of the range of competing vehicles. Fueling the fortwo does cost more since it takes premium fuel, something that negates some of the money you save from the increased fuel mileage.

If you think you'll get a smart fortwo for commuting on the highway, you should definitely reconsider your plan. There's a reason why the fortwo is called a city car, since its top speed is limited to just 90 mph. The car also struggles to get up to freeway speeds and is easily "pushed" to the side by semis and other large vehicles pushing the air as they pass the car.

In the city the fortwo does provide a surprisingly peppy ride, making you forget that it only has a 1-liter three-cylinder engine. Its incredibly tiny size means you can easily park next to the jerk who double-parks his BMW, making finding a parking spot a breeze. One huge drawback of the car is its transmission: a five-speed automated manual that sends power to the rear wheels. As  puts it, it is "one of the worst transmissions on the market today" since it is anything but smooth, giving both driver and passenger a herky-jerky ride at any speed.

2013 Chevrolet Sonic. Photo courtesy GM
If I were looking for a city car I would have to say the smart fortwo wouldn't make my list of potential purchases. Instead, I would be looking at the Scion IQ, which is every bit as small but without the negative issues of the fortwo. There's also the Fiat 500 for those who want some style in their ride as well as more engaging driving fun (especially with the Abarath version of the car). Other good options include the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent and the Chevrolet Sonic (GM has finally learned how to build good small cars). All of these vehicles are going to provide the ability to commute on the highway, carry more cargo and a much smoother and refined ride.

2013 Ford Fiesta. Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company