You'd be hard pressed to call us fans of the 2010 Smart ForTwo here at GreenCarReports. The tiny two-seater is a novel idea unfortunately let down in execution.
Whilst the car is spacious despite its exterior appearance and we can't fault equipment levels and quality, some mechanical aspects let the side down. The engines themselves are characterful little units and produce reasonable power, but the 'smart-shift' semi-automatic gearbox is slow and jerky, hampering progress.
Probably the most pressing problem though is economy. The 33mpg city/41mpg highway ratings aren't much to write home about, especially with the 2010 Toyota Prius achieving 51mpg and 48mpg on the same cycle. Sure, the Prius costs more, but its performance and space are a whole lot better, and both cars appeal to the same green-minded buyers.
The Diesel Smart
What if we told you though that the U.S. was getting the wrong car, and that the best Smart is actually being sold in Europe? There's just one catch: It's a diesel.
We've just spent a weekend and over 600 miles with a 2010 Smart ForTwo Cabrio Cdi, and it was an interesting experience.
The bad news first: The jerky gearbox is unchanged from the gasoline models. Changes are slow and elicit a rock fore and aft as you change up. However, what many reviews don't tell you is that this is only a worst-case scenario. The most staccato changes happen when your foot is welded to the floorboard in the fully automatic gearbox mode.
Switch to manual mode and the changes smooth out (a little) and even speed up (also by a little). Lift off the gas a little as you change and you can actually make quite smooth progress, even if you still won't be beating a Honda Fit from the lights.
Our test drive in the 2011 Smart Electric Drive the same weekend did highlight how much effort you need to go to to maintain smooth progress though, the electric car making low speed work incredibly easy and linear.
Low speed maneuvers in particular were particularly difficult, the transmission having no "creep" function like a regular automatic meaning finding the automated clutch "biting point" was a hit and miss affair. Turning around in tight streets had us jumping backwards and forwards like a learner driver.
What's it like to drive?
On that note, performance is... well, we make no bones about it. The diesel Smart is slow.
Top speed is limited to 85mph, and accelerating to 60 miles per hour takes a leisurely 16.3 seconds, meaning you need a leaden right foot to join fast-moving highway traffic. The engine is willing enough though, even if it does get a little noisy at higher revs. That compares to Smart's quote of 12.8 seconds for 0 to 60 mph in the gasoline version.
We're not sure if the electronic limiter fitted to our car was having an off-day, but suffice to say our car managed an indicated speed higher than 85mph. At these speeds it felt remarkably stable, though later when we drove the car in windy conditions, keeping the car in a straight line was enough to induce sweaty palms.
Driving the car quickly kind of misses the point anyway. If you buy one expecting the road manners and performance of a sports car then you're buying the wrong car. Driven a little more sedately, the Smart can be quite pleasant and even fun. The three-cylinder engine spins smoothly (especially when warm) and the car feels light on its toes.
The ride is still a little on the rough side, a short wheelbase meaning both axles hit bumps in quick succession, the suspension unable to keep up. The trade off is in the corners, where even without power assisted steering the car can be made to dart about, making light work of traffic and twisty roads. Even grip from the narrow tires is acceptable, certainly enough to cope with city conditions. Again, the car is no Boxster, but it's more fun than any tall, narrow city car has a right to be.