Hype surrounding the American introduction of the Smart Fortwo in 2008 suggested the little car ran on energy drinks and, at rest in its tiny parking space, worked out problems of chaos theory. But someone forgot that “smart” is also a verb. A lot of smarting took place in the United States after the initial sales rush faded to semi-dormancy. The national distributor and local dealers smarted after investing in the new franchise. So did owners who contended with the coarse powertrain and sketchy driving dynamics. In hopes of picking up sales and opening the door for an addition to the model lineup, the 2016 Smart Fortwo is new and comprehensively improved.
Styling by Pixar
A walk around the 2016 Smart Fortwo reveals a car that appears to have escaped from a Pixar movie. All that’s missing from the florid face is a stubby stogie hanging out one corner of the air intake. It’s easy to imagine late developmental nights spent gabbing with a rusty tow truck in Radiator Springs. The goggling eyes recall the SUV-like Smart Forstars concept car of 2012, which emphasized anthropomorphism. The front’s sharp corners reduce drag, a massing volume on the side results in a substantial “shoulder,” and the wee lick of a rear spoiler lets the last draggy air detach after just 106.1 inches of engagement. As always, one color accentuates the safety cell while the plastic door panels contrast in another.
An obvious question
Questions about crashworthiness naturally arise even before anyone asks what the Fortwo has under the hood. Body engineer Uwe Lobenwein explained that hot-formed steel – “the best that you currently get” -- is part of the material mix. “Especially where we have it in the body-in-white,” Lobenwein said. “It’s in the safety cell and the floor to absorb shear forces, to transfer the energy from the front of the vehicle into the back.” A prototype that survived a 50-kph (31 mph) offset collision with a Mercedes-Benz S-Class and still had normally functioning doors exemplified his point.
From baby boot to hiking boot
Arriving in Pure and Passion trim levels in the United States late in 2015, the 2016 Smart Fortwo is less like a high-top baby boot and more like a hiking boot. Most crucially, it is 3.9 inches wider, with the track increased by 3.6 inches, and now maneuvers far more authoritatively, as we found during a preview on the monumental main drags of Barcelona. Tucked in with everything else, a new damper-strut front and DeDion rear suspension combine with taller springs and higher-profile tires to deliver a ride mostly free of tumult or clamor.
Once again, the engine sits in the rear, tilting away at 32 degrees to leave room above for cargo. While Europeans will choose among a trio of Renault-sourced three-cylinders, the U.S. market will only see the turbocharged DOHC 898cc engine. Output is 89 hp and 99 lb-ft of torque, the latter being delivered at 2,500 rpm. Although we never got out of third gear in Barcelona, Smart says 0 to 62 mph is accomplished in 10.4 seconds, with a top speed of 96 mph. Vibration is not part of the equation, and the three revs happily. While EPA figures aren’t yet available, the European combined ratings come in around 55 mpg.
At last, a new transmission (actually, two)
The old car’s great atrocity, the five-speed automated-manual transmission, is replaced by a six-speed dual-clutch automatic or five-speed manual gearbox. The DCT is not accompanied by paddle shifters, so manual operation is controlled exclusively by the gear lever’s sport-shift feature. Upshifts are slow but assuredly smooth. The five-speed manual, which is expected to account for 20 percent of sales, would not be our choice because of the car’s reluctance to creep in traffic, the turbo engine surging with the accelerator but then inconveniently lugging in second gear. We only sampled the DCT with the not-for-our-market, naturally aspirated 999cc engine, and despite the less robust output we found it preferable.
Yes, there’s an app
Ducking through the large opening into the cabin was like entering a gondola. The cowl wrapped around our bellies, and the fixed glass overhead afforded prolonged views of the 60-meter-tall Christopher Columbus monument at Barcelona’s port. After fixing the seat in the best position to match the (leather-wrapped) steering wheel that adjusts for rake only, we dashed around Barcelona without feeling imperiled by our mote-like aspect. The ride quality was impressive, with the car maintaining serenity over bumps. Should a mistral have strayed in from the Mediterranean, the Fortwo’s standard crosswind assist, optional lane-keep assist, and forward collision warning were on tap to save us. In fact, with such composure, the ruckus supplied by the available eight-speaker JBL sound system with removable cargo-area bass speaker might be welcome.
And how could the Fortwo be trendy without an app? Cross Connect allows users to dock a phone in an adjustable center-console cradle, thereby controlling infotainment functions, recording and displaying data, and even helping to find parking spaces. Other smarty-pants drivers who’ve identified Smart-only spots can upload those locations for general benefit.
The fuel-cost conundrum
After our drive, Smart boss Annette Winkler sat with us at dinner, nudging with her elbow when speaking of “Smart cities” -- mostly West Coast enclaves where kale and quinoa rule and Tegan and Sara sell out. But with gas back at $3 a gallon, we must ask: Who needs a Fortwo other than as an eccentric statement? The improvements are undeniable, and it will have more standard features for a slightly higher, as yet undetermined, price. But for similar money, the Nissan Versa Note looks amazing. The Smart Fortwo answers a question fewer people will ask.
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