When I purchased my 2002 Honda Accord coupe I quickly found out what a pain it was to parallel park (the back end is hard to judge. Other people that have driven my car have said the same). This is made worse by me now living in Chicago. I just don’t like piloting a car the same length as a minivan around the city. That said, the Smart Fortwo making it to the United States was good news to me! My thinking was a Smart would be a great car to have as my daily driver and I could just rent a vehicle for those days I’d need something larger which is maybe once or twice a year if that.
Since it’s arrival to the U.S. there’ve been plenty of reviews dismissing the vehicle as terrible. Because of that I really didn’t have much of a desire to actually test drive one.
On 12-22-2009 I happened to log on to Smart’s website and noticed that they’re giving away $25 Target Giftcards for test driving a Smart before 12-31-2009.
$25 for my trouble? Since there’s a Smart dealership about 20 minutes away from my home I decided that it was worth it to go take a look. Bonus is that it was snowing pretty good that evening. If anything would be a deal breaker for this car I figured it’d be snow handling.
A friend of mine and I arrived on site and walked in. I was pretty impressed to see that for less than $12,000 I can get a Smart Fortwo Pure with standard Power Locks, Remote Keyless Entry, “automatic transmission” (more on that later), airbags all around, Tridion Safety Cell, ABS (Anti-Lock Brake System), ESP (Electronic Stability Program), CBC (Cornering Brake Control), ASC (Acceleration Skid Control), ETC (Engine Torque Control), TPS (Tire Pressure Monitoring System) and BAS (On the same page Smart lists it as Hydraulic Brake Assist and also as Electronic Brake Assist . . . Neither lines up with BAS I’M CONFUSED!!!!) This is quite a lot more standard features than you’d find in cars for the same price such as a Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio or Nissan Versa.
That said the Smart can also be loaded up with quite a bit more. Power Windows, Heated Mirrors, Navigation, Rear Backup Camera, Heated Seats, Leather Seats, Panoramic Sunroof and Automatic Climate Control name all the options that I can think of that were interesting to me (though I’m sure a rear backup camera is useful in any vehicle . . . It’d be considered a toy in a car like this) Oh in addition to this the Smart Fortwo is also comes available in convertible form with a top that you can open & close at any speed.
The friendly salesperson explained all of these features to me and offered to take a Smart Convertible out on a test drive with me. First he proceeded to show me how the car refused to lose control no matter what he did. Try to swerve and the various systems (ESP, CBC, ASC, ETC) all work together to keep the car going as predictably as possible. It was impressive. My Accord does well on snow but If I tried some of that I’d be spinning. That said I’d recommend anyone who does serious winter driving invest in snow tires for their vehicle regardless of what you drive. Whatever type of drivetrain you have it will do you no good if your tires can’t get a solid grip. If you have no place to store them in off season some shops will store them for you.
After that he turned the keys over to us and we drove it on our own. We both drove it and thought the handling was pretty good. It was not a speed demon of a car but it was certainly acceptable (We were encouraged to try it on the expressway if we wanted however with the gridlock of 6pm snow traffic I think we got a better test by sticking to side streets) I’d say the acceleration of it was on par with my old 1993 Subaru Impreza L which was fully capable of beating Chevy Camaros from stoplights when the Camaro driver wasn’t paying attention.
Two things took a few minutes to get used to. The floor mounted brake pedal and the transmission.
Floor Mounted Brake Pedal – Why? Seriously why? Once you’re used to it it’s fine but . . . Why? Space savings perhaps? Maybe it takes a fair amount of hardware to mount the brake pedal from the bottom of the dash?
Automated Manual Transmission – The transmission is the biggest thing people love to complain about with this car. It’s an automated manual transmission. The shift action of the car from 1st to 2nd was especially interesting to me as the feeling of the clutch engaging and disengaging was very obvious. There’s also a manual mode for this transmission. Reading the Smart enthusiast forums there’s arguments about which mode is better. When test driving a Smart make sure you understand the transmission for what it is. I don’t consider it a weak-point just a quirk which you’ll either love, hate or be indifferent to. As for me I though it was cool.
Beyond that though the car was surprisingly roomy. The car had heated cloth seats and I have to say seat comfort was great I could see myself sitting there for quite a while without any complaints. The seating was also nice and high which provided a more commanding view of the road than other non-SUVs. It didn’t feel much like a micro car once inside until you looked in back of you and realized . . . It was. Considering the lack of a following distance most idiots on the road are leaving today . . . It’s conceivable that their vehicle’s grill will be just a few feet from the back of your head.
That said I have no doubts that the Smart is a very safe vehicle for any size. People still subscribe to the “bigger is better” mentality. I’ve never bought into that mindset. One reason I like smaller cars because I can maneuver out of an accident rather than just letting it happen. I much prefer looking at active safety than passive safety. Should something happen though it would appear, based on real life accident reports the safety cell and all of the safety features available in the Smart do their job very well in all situations from fender benders to roll overs. http://www.safeandsmart.com/ has a lot of actual owner stories and explanations of the safety systems the vehicle has.
Did I mention that it’s also one of the cheapest cars to insure? The safety ratings contribute greatly to this. I did contact my insurance company to get a quote on replacing my Honda Accord with a Smart Fortwo and a Honda Fit. The Smart would be $56 extra per year. The Honda Fit Base would be an extra $160 per year.
Let’s now discuss the included warranty . . . With Smart pushing the fact that Mercedes-Benz had a lot to do with the engineering of this vehicle . . . Why don’t they also include a warranty package on par with Mercedes-Benz? 2yrs 24,000 miles is VERY pathetic by today’s standards. The dealership tried to tell me it was due to Smart’s research that most people won’t hold on to their car for that long. . . . Nice try. Most factory warranties are transferrable which is a selling point for a used car. I feel that a warranty that’s on par with Mercedes-Benz is what should come with the car.
Furthermore the Smart roadside assistance program at the same 2 yrs 24,000 miles is not up to the level of Mercedes-Benz’s which is unlimited time unlimited mileage for any Mercedes-Benz vehicle in the U.S. . . . And it’s GOOD. We’ve used it on two occasions on a 2002 C230 Coupe. (both flat tires) The technician was out within 20 minutes. The first time the tech showed up in a late model BMW 3 series. I asked “Ok I’ve used roadside assistance through AAA, Subaru and Honda. Each time it was a two hour wait. Why was this so fast?” he was quiet for a bit and said “This is Mercedes” ‘nuff said. From what I’ve read owners are reporting that Smart roadside assistance is very good and very fast. Flatbeds are always sent out as well since the Smart does not have a spare tire therefore tows to the nearest tire shop may be necessary. That said, if you’re going to tie yourself to Mercedes-Benz . . . Again . . . Offer the same coverage they do!
I should also mention that I asked two different Smart salespeople why Smart does not offer a program like Mercedes-Benz’s unlimited time unlimited mileage roadside assistance program that’s available for ALL Mercedes-Benz vehicles within the United States. They had no idea what I was talking about and it took me a few times of mentioning my brother’s 1987 260e is covered before it sunk in that the vehicle was over 20 years old. That was especially surprising considering the showrooms at that dealership are connected. I’d expect some passing knowledge of their sister brand’s offerings.
In all fairness it was explained to me that I could extend the warranty coverage if I so chose so there are options. I’d recommend anyone buying any car on payments make sure their warranty lasts the life of their loan. While Smart is the shortest that I’ve seen lately most auto manufacturers’ included warranties do not last through a five year loan period. Factor the cost of an extended warranty into your car purchase if you’re buying the car on payments. Nothing is worse than having a car payment AND unexpected repairs.
Moving beyond that . . . I know I even did this earlier in my posting but I have to say that comparisons between the Smart Fortwo and the Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa etc are just not fair. That’s the same as comparing a Nissan Altima coupe to a Toyota Highlander. Are the prices similar? Yes. Is the vehicle’s mission the same? No.
I’ve seen many people say the following “But I have a family! What am I supposed to do with them in a Smartcar??” Nothing, this car is not a family hauler. Don’t get a Mazda MX-5 either. Get a vehicle that’s designed for that. Small and mid-sized SUVs appear to be the soccer-mom transport of choice nowadays. “I’m a construction worker! How am I supposed to haul all my tools and materials??” Sorry this car isn’t for you either. Look for a pickup truck or something with equal hauling ability. “I can’t drive me and four other friends around!” Why would you want to? Let them foot the gas bill.
What do I think the vehicle’s mission is? Who do I think it’s for?
A family that already has a family car but needs a second smaller car for one or both parents to get to & from work. I’ve read people in the forums posting that they’re getting mid to high 40s gas mileage out of the Smart without too much effort on long commutes. Since the vehicle starts under $12,000 that’s not a bad initial investment. Sure you can get that out of a Toyota Prius but that starts for around $22,500 which is over $10,000 more. A Honda Insight will do similar as well but that starts at $19,800. If the backseat isn’t necessary but high gas mileage is the Smart is a good choice.
An individual living in any area where street parking is necessary would be well served with a vehicle this short. For the size the cargo hauling ability is pretty good. 98% of the time this car will probably suit the needs of those people. The rest of time time they can cheaply rent a hauling truck from the hardware store or car rental agency.
An individual with limited mobility (like a senior citizen) with limited cargo hauling requirements would probably love this car too. The high seating arrangement makes the car extremely easy to enter and exit which is a particular advantage for this segment.
Someone who wants a second cheapish (without being cheap) fun unique car, particularly in convertible form. The convertible starts pretty well equipped for just under $17,000. By comparison the Mazda MX-5 (Miata) is the closest in terms of base price with the 2010 model starting at just under $23,000 and does not include all of the features the Smart Car has as standard. Same goes for the Mini Cooper Convertible which starts at just over $24,000. In both of these cases the cargo hauling ability is compromised due to the convertible top whereas the Smart Fortwo doesn’t appear to have a problem with hauling cargo while the top is partially or fully opened.
The Smart is not for everyone but what car truly is?
So, to sum it up, overall I really like this vehicle and am giving it serious consideration as a replacement for my Honda Accord later on this year. That said however my suggested improvements to SmartUSA are as follows.
- Longer Warranty – Mercedes-Benz includes a 48 month or 50,000 mile limited warranty with unlimited time/mileage roadside assistance. Hyundai & Kia offer a 10 year or 100,000 mile powertrain warranty & a 5 year or 60,000 mile limited warranty on other components (Read Hyundai’s warranty closely to determine where their limitations are). If Smart were to include a warranty on par with either of these manufacturers I think that would help them greatly. 2 years / 24,000 miles is not long enough when most people are going to be taking car loans out for a five year term. That said most car manufacturer warranties are not long enough to last the life of the average loan so most car buyers should be purchasing manufacturer extended warranties anyway if they aren’t sure they can afford repairs and a loan at the same time.
- Diesel Engine – I’ve read that Smart sells a diesel version of this car in Europe that gets 70-80 mpg (I’m sure that’s not the U.S. measure but still it’s impressive) and we don’t have it here. I imagine it’s due to the clean diesel requirement that we have in the U.S. Mercedes and Volkswagen had to pull their diesel passenger cars off the market for a year or two while they worked that out. I’m betting they don’t quite have it worked out for the Smart yet which is why we don’t get it.
Aside from those suggested improvements I do feel the Smart is an overall good value with a high level of standard equipment, great safety ratings and low operating costs. If you think this car would serve the purpose for you I’d suggest you read all the reviews you can so you understand what the car actually is and then go test drive one for yourself. It’s worth it.