If there's a more polarizing car on the roads than the 2012 Smart ForTwo, we've not heard about it. Smart's diminutive city car fits two passengers and a tiny engine into the shortest footprint on U.S. roads. There's certainly no mistaking the shape for anything else.
Unfortunately for Smart, the ForTwo has never really caught on in the U.S. With a recalcitrant gearbox, lower fuel economy than you'd expect and misconceptions over how safe a car that small could really be, it's not difficult to see why.
Ask someone on the street what kind of gas mileage a Smart ForTwo gets, and you may get answers like “60 miles per gallon” or “75? 100 mpg?”
In fact, it’s rated at merely 34 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 36 mpg. So it hardly guzzles gas, but it's still not that much more economical than significantly larger, more practical cars like the Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent—and it's even behind its new minicar rival, the Scion iQ, at a combined 37 mpg.
The Smart does score in some areas. It has more character than cars twice its size and 10 times the price, and you can even specify a convertible version. If zero emissions are your thing, there's also a battery electric version available (in extremely limited numbers) with an 87-mpg-equivalent rating.
However, you've got to really need the Smart's parking ability and appreciate its unique looks to choose it over the wealth of more practical, faster and more economical vehicles on the market..
The most surprising facet of a Smart may be the truly enormous interior space for two people, even if they’re well over six feet tall. There’s room both for their legs and their heads, with space above left over.
What’s missing is cargo space. With the engine over the rear wheels, which sit just slightly behind the passengers, there’s only enough capacity for a handful of grocery bags.
At low speeds and in city traffic, the Smart excels. It’s perky and maneuverable. And it can travel at speed, taking on freeways at 70 mph or more without getting truly scary, though it can feel a little skittish on its small wheels.
The very short wheelbase means the nimble handling comes at the expense of ride quality, though—you can really feel the bumps. Overtaking power from the 1.0-liter three-cylinder is lacking too, and the car pitches back and forth a lot.
That pitching is exacerbated by the automated manual gearbox. There's no clutch to operate, but the slow, jerky gear changes might make you wish for one to smooth out the experience—or for a proper conventional automatic. Experienced Smart drivers will learn how to feather the accelerator to reduce the worst of it—but they shouldn’t have to.
The Smart ForTwo comes with good crash-test ratings considering how small it is, though they’re hardly top of the pack. It’s got the usual antilock brakes, stability control, and side airbags. But the trim levels—Pure and Passion—might be well called Spartan and Adequate, and perched on the high-mounted seats, the quirky interior doesn't cosset occupants like other cars do.
Smart sells the ForTwo with the tagline "Uncar", and that's really the only way to justify the Smart over more sensible choices—by treating it not as a car, but simply a different means of transportation.
For more details, see the full review of the 2012 Smart ForTwo on our sister site, TheCarConnection.