smart fortwo passion – Seriously, I don't get it

Expert Reviews

by Kurt Gensheimer

kurt inside the smart fortwo


  • “Interesting” design
  • High smug factor – if that’s what you’re into
  • More compact than a crushed Geo Metro
  • Gets more looks than a Ferrari
  • Safer than you think
  • Spacious interior makes you forget you’re in an 8 foot box


  • “Interesting” design
  • High smug factor
  • 40 mpg ain’t great for a 1600 lb car
  • Paltry, wheezing engine
  • Geriatric transmission
  • High price tag for what it is
  • Cargo space for a single…uh…nevermind

Verdict: I don’t get it.

The marketing tagline for smart USA is “Open Your Mind”, which assumes that Americans are generally close-minded about new ideas. Or maybe they’re referring to Americans opening their minds to the creative possibilities of having such a hip, small, maneuverable car. Or could it be a much deeper reference? Like opening your mind to gaze deep inside your psyche and realize that, yes, I’ve always lusted after a 1600 pound car with three cylinders and enough cargo space for a single backpack. Whatever the case, I tried. I tried really hard to open my mind. I pushed, pulled, kicked and banged on that metaphorical door to my mind. I even tried to open my third eye, but to no avail. I just don’t get it.

smart USA is on a nationwide marketing tour this summer advertising their line of sub-sub-compacts which are slated to be released in America in January of 2008. Since the late 1990s, the parent company, Mercedes Car Group, has sold over 750,000 smart cars in 36 countries. It has become an automotive icon in European cities like Rome, has been featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and has starred in blockbuster movies like The DaVinci Code. Yes, it seems the smug factor on the smart may very well eclipse that of the Prius. So when I found out the smart was coming to a city near me, I just had to see what all the hubbub was about.

Dodging a barrage of cars two and three times the size of the smart, this past Friday I walked into a completely packed WholeFoods Market parking lot in Cupertino, California where smart USA was letting the public test drive their fleet of cars.

smart usa road show smart usa road show smart usa road show

smart fortwo – First Impressions

Yes that’s right. In case you were confused, it’s for two. And yes, the car is so smart they forgot to capitalize it. But what is it about the smart that drew such a cattle herd of a crowd? The car is under 9 feet long, 5 feet wide, weighs a scant 1600 pounds and has a wheezing 70 horsepower 3-cylinder engine. The 1-liter gasoline motor gets a reported 40 mpg in mixed city and highway driving, which, quite frankly, for a car of such puny stature isn’t much to brag about. It has a top speed of 90 mph and a 0-60 time of don’t ask. The price ranges from the base $12,000 “pure” model (again, no capitalization to further befuddle us) to the $17,000 dollar “passion cabrio” model, which, quite frankly for a car of such puny stature is a hefty sum.

The fuel economy isn’t blow your mind impressive, the utility is minimal, the engine sounds like a poorly-tuned diesel. So where’s the draw? It must be in how the car drives.

On the Road

Although my time driving the smart was brief, I didn’t need much with it on the road to know the verdict. A very friendly smart representative, Carleton, rode shotgun and introduced me to the car. When I first got in, for a few moments the reality of sitting in a sub-9 foot box disappeared amidst a spacious cabin with ample leg, elbow and headroom. It actually felt like a full-size car, which was impressive. Maybe, just maybe, I could open my ignorant mind and welcome the smart.

smart fortwo smart fortwo

After messing with the automatic/manual shifter controls for a second, I easily navigated my way out of the congested parking lot. At 5 mph in extremely tight traffic, the smart was a hoot; well, as much hoot as you can have going 5 mph. But the second I hit the street and dug my foot into the accelerator, the smart hacked and chortled, quickly ending the hoot I was having. The motor peaked out in a full-on screaming mimi soundtrack, and I hit the paddle shifter for second. I waited. And waited some more. Looked out the window at a grove of eucalyptus trees. Told Carleton this really funny Mitch Hedberg joke. Then finally it shifted.

In the corners at 35 mph, the smart was fun so long as the engine wasn’t required. The steering was solid and the four-wheel ABS disc-brakes worked fine – although it doesn’t take too much in the way of brake engineering to stop a 1600 lb. car that peaks at 90 mph. Just as Carleton was telling me about the HSA (hill start assist) feature that keeps the car from rolling backwards at idle, we came to a stoplight. It was on a slight incline, but just barely. It was almost flat. I took my foot off the brake and it started rolling backwards. I pushed the gas. It kept rolling backwards. I pushed harder. The motor weakly responded. I floored it, and finally the car crept forward. Carleton shrugged his shoulders. So much for the HSA feature.

smart car tridion safety cell smart car tridion safety cell smart car tridion safety cell


During our time on the road, Carleton and I were fortunate enough not to experience how safe the smart was in an accident. Although I had my doubts while looking at the rolling display of their “tridion safety cell” (again, no caps, people) – a hard shell that surrounds the car with an entire energy-absorbing system – once I viewed this video, my concerns were quelled. The smart is definitely safe enough.


I ain’t gonna lie, the smart is interesting. I love that word – interesting. It’s so neutral. The perfect word to use when someone puts you on the spot for an opinion. It doesn’t mean you hate it. It doesn’t mean you love it. It’s just interesting. Kind of like the first time you saw a Swatch watch. You didn’t know what to think about it. Well, it came as little surprise to find out the brainchild of the Swatch watch, Nicolas Hayek, also invented the smart. Just like a Swatch, the smart comes in a collage of interior and exterior colors, and with easily removable body panels, the car is customizable. The interior is as interesting as the exterior, with a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel and an imaginative seat design. Hmm, yes, interesting.

smart fortwo smart fortwo

Who should buy it?

I asked this question to a smart representative, and he predictably replied “everyone”. Uh, yea…no. Definitely not this author, but I digress. I can see the usefulness of the smart for people who live in congested cities like San Francisco or New York and need a car for very local driving with little to no cargo requirements that can be parked with the ease of a motorcycle. However, beyond this almost non-existent American demographic, I can’t recommend it.


Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in America. A place where bigger is better, obesity reigns supreme, cities are separated by hundreds of miles of high-speed interstate and our collection of useless crap is so vast we need to pay companies to store it. When the MINI Cooper came out, I wondered who would be able to use such a small car. But after comparing the MINI’s pricetag, performance, fuel economy and cargo space to the smart, it’s not even a contest. The MINI is umpteen times more practical, fun and useful than a smart.

smart fortwo

It seems to me the only reason for someone to buy a smart is the oh-so-familiar smug factor we’ve grown accustomed to here in California with the Prius. Owning a smart is not a matter of function or usefulness, it’s a matter of statement; which is fine, because your car is a reflection of you.

But at least the Prius makes a real statement with its Hybrid technology and insane city fuel economy. What statement is the smart making? I’ve got little cargo space? I’ve got unimpressive fuel economy for my size? I’ve got paltry performance and a high pricetag? Just like the ill-fated and downright stupid-looking Segway “Personal Transporter”, I just don’t get it. But maybe that’s just because I’m a Stupid, close-minded American. That’s right folks, Stupid. With a captial S.


smart fortwo Photo Gallery

smart USAThe official website of smart USA –

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  • Derek says:

    The Canadians have the diesel version, with the big fuel savings, of the smart car available to them. U.S. customers were denied because the smart car with the diesel engine probably couldn’t pass smog standards for all 50 states. VW TDI and Mercedes-Benz BlueTEC are two diesel engines in passenger cars that are 50-state compliant for new car sales. Why is diesel such a tough sell in the U.S.?

  • PAul says:

    The gearbox has been a weak point since the mk1 was released. There are modifications and software remaps available to speed up the shift on the older models, so I hope you get the same for the US model.

    The lack of HSA is interesting, I have it on the smart roadster-coupe (never to be sold in the USA) and I find it nothing but an annoyance and would rather have it switched off.
    The point of HSA is to briefly hold the car by using the ABS unit to lock the wheels, then after about 1/2 second it releases. It gives you enough time to move from brake to accelerator and floor it – so that the car doesn’t roll back while revving up.

    It is NOT intended to hold your car stationary on a hill, that’s what your foot is for … or even the handbrake.

    My problem is that tapping the brake while reversing also engages HSA and brings you to a complete stop while attempting a parallel park manoeuvre. Not that I’ve seen anyone do that in the USA, seems everyone just drives forward into a parking space and switches the engine off, relying on the transmission as a parking brake.

    After 10 years driving (and racing) smart cars, left foot braking comes naturally, as does anticipating gear changes to keep the engine in the turbo power band. I think paddle shift is an essential, not a luxury in that regard.

    Though I wish I didn’t have to switch off the ESP system to change gear while cornering, traction control off the car is about 10mph faster through Pouhon but can be induced to spin through Radillon/Eau Rouge.

  • PAul says:

    40mpg sounds awful.
    I suppose it might be your smaller American gallons.
    Conversion factor is 0.83 so I’ve been getting better mileage than that on a 5 year old european smart car.
    With the rising fuel prices I switched to a smart cdi diesel, and I’m getting 58mpg (70mpg imperial) from a 10 year old mk1 imported from France.

  • John Maurice says:

    I spent a considerable amount of time in Europe. Loved the Smartcar the first time I saw it in Florence. Loved it more when I drove it in Florence and through the Chianti countryside. Great urban car. Very comfortable cabin. In conclusion and since you asked… You don’t get it, but I would not conclude that you are stupid. That would not be polite. You obviously mean well. Cowboy Up.

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