You could make the case that the 2013 Smart ForTwo is the most argued-about car on U.S. roads, though certain plug-in electric cars might give it a run for its money.
But the smallest car sold in the U.S. is polarizing for sure, with many questioning its safety and many others assuming it gets 70 or 80 mpg because it's so tiny. It's distinctive for sure, with a shape no one will mistake for any other vehicle.
To set the record straight, the Smart does fairly well in crash tests, offers airbags for its occupants--and only gets an EPA rating of 36 mpg combined, hardly competitive with much larger and more capacious hybrids.
While that's hardly gas guzzling, the ratings--34 mpg city, 38 mpg highway--aren't as stellar as the size would seem to indicate. There's also the problem that Smarts require premium fuel, unlike most other economy cars. And last year the Smart gained its first minicar rival, the almost-as-short Scion iQ, which is rated a "three plus one" seater, carries the Toyota reputation for quality (Scion is a Toyota brand), and is available at many more dealers than the subset of Mercedes-Benz dealerships that carry the Smart brand.
For 2013, the ForTwo has been lightly restyled, with new front and rear bumper fascias and side sills. You can tell the new 2013 model from earlier Smarts by the location of the Smart logo badge, which has moved down from the front of the short hood to the center of the wide grille just above the bumper.
So the Smart's main advantage is its ability to squeeze into parking spaces that drivers of other cars can't even consider. In crowded urban areas like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and parts of Los Angeles, that's a big plus for a small car. And the convertible version--more of a targa top, really--known as the cabrio adds a bit of elan to an already characterful car.
But drivers may pay for parking agility in other ways. In the city, the Smart ForTwo is perky and maneuverable, despite a 0-to-60-mph time of around 13 seconds. But its recalcitrant automatic manual gearbox pitches the car back and forth on its short wheelbase when driven hard, and it takes a trained foot on the accelerator to compensate for it. The Smart's 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine doesn't have a lot of overtaking power, and the slow, jerky gear changes may put off novice drivers until they learn how to feather the power on and off--and they shouldn't have to.
Inside, a Smart ForTwo is truly enormous--for two people. Drivers and passengers well over six feet tall sit high and will find plenty of space for legs, heads, and everything else. Behind the seats, however, the car ends abruptly, leaving no more cargo room than can accommodate a few grocery bags or a bit of soft luggage. Ride quality isn't very good, either, with bumps often felt directly under the driver's backside, or so it seems. On freeways, the car will do 70 mph, but its small wheels give it a skittish feeling and traveling sandwiched between semis may cause distinct feelings of vulnerability in even the most intrepid minicar driver.
The Smart only offers two trim levels, Pure and Passion. The Truth In Marketing Act might insist, though, that they be relabeled Spartan and Tolerable. A 2011 interior refresh updated the interior from its late 1990s design to at least the mid-2010s, but compared to a Scion iQ (let alone the latest stylish subcompacts like the Chevy Sonic), the dashboard looks more like a motorcycle's than one belonging to a car.
Perhaps that makes the "Uncar" tagline of current Smart advertising appropriate. The Smart ForTwo can alternatively be viewed not as a car, but a different kind of transport. And the company's Car2Go car-sharing service, which pioneered in Austin, Texas, and expanded to San Diego and other cities, reinforces the "Smart as transportation mode" identity.
Perhaps the most significant changes for 2013, however, are to the Smart Electric Drive model, which gets an all-new battery pack and a more powerful electric motor that puts out peak power of 55 kilowatts (74 horsepower) and a sustained rating of 35 kW (47 hp). The new electric Smart will go on sale late in 2012, at a price projected to be well below $30,000 before incentives--which would make it the least expensive battery electric vehicle sold in the U.S. this year.
Small numbers of the previous (2011) Electric Drive model had been available for lease only, but their peak power of 30 kW (40 hp) and sustained output of 20 kW (27 hp) made them slow above 30 mph, and a lease cost of $599 per month with $2,400 down meant that the bulk of them were used by electric utilities and other fleets rather than driven by private owners.
The EPA hasn't yet rated the range or efficiency of the new 2013 Smart Electric Drive, but Smart officials seem confident that it will exceed the earlier electric model's 63 miles of range and 87 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent, or the distance the car could travel on electricity with the same energy content as 1 gallon of gasoline).
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Smart ForTwo on our sister site, TheCarConnection.