In some ways, Daimler could not have picked a better moment to introduce its Smart car to America. The Smart Fortwo—a Lilliputian, sub-sub-subcompact that fits two adults and almost nothing else—made its debut on these shores in January, and since then, gas prices and demand for small cars have skyrocketed in tandem. American auto-buyers seem to be saying: Shrimp my ride.
Smart recently let me borrow a Fortwo for a couple of days. I took long drives on the city streets and surrounding highways of Washington, D.C. I went on errands, picked up friends, and parallel-parked in the eensiest spaces I could find. I had a blast with this little imp, and I even wished I could have kept it longer. In the end, however, I can't imagine buying one. Nor can I envision it catching on with the American public.
Which is really no knock on the car's design. Performancewise, this thing's a small wonder. At only 70 horsepower—a degree of engine muscle more commonly found in the outboard motor of a small watercraft—you might expect the Fortwo to putter along like a sluggish moped. Instead (thanks no doubt to its feathery weight), it leaps forward from a standing start and offers some decent thrills getting from 0 to 45 mph. The secret is in the transmission: According to Smart, the Fortwo's first gear is tuned a bit more aggressively than on Smart's European models, allowing the car to "better demonstrate its spirited nature when pulling away at traffic lights."
The Fortwo model I tried featured Smart's "automated manual transmission." This is a sort of hybrid of a stick shift and an automatic. If you wish, the car can do all the shifting for you. Or you can choose to change gears on your own, not with a clutch but with paddles mounted on either side of the steering wheel. This semimanual option bestows a greater measure of control and allows for a slightly sportier shifting pattern. But it's also a tease: If you redline the tachometer in low gear for more than a few seconds, the car will seize back its authority and upshift without asking. (Which may be for the best. At 6,500 rpm, the motor begins to sound like a Cuisinart chopping a crunchy clump of walnuts.) Likewise, the car's computer will disallow any manual shifting—up or down—that it deems illogical.
You sit way up high in the Fortwo, and you'll find yourself looking down on the drivers of sedans and hatchbacks. This makes it easy to forget you're in a vehicle approximately half their length. Your reminder comes on the turns: 1) As you swing around, you notice there's no hood out in front of you, leading the way, and 2) the turning radius is so tight that you can bang a smooth U-eey on a narrow street—a maneuver that would occasion a five-point turn in many larger cars.
If there's a drawback to the Fortwo's ride, it's the bumpy suspension. You can feel every jolt—to the point that you'll start grimacing in anticipation of the potholes up ahead. Perhaps this is a consequence of the car's small wheelbase. Or it may be part of the trade-off involved in engineering the Fortwo's responsive steering. (With its teeny footprint, zippy handling, and quick acceleration, the Fortwo may be the greatest car ever for slaloming recklessly between the cement pillars of an empty underground parking garage. I'm just guessing.)
Everyone asks about highway driving. "Weren't you terrified to go over 50? And all those 18-wheelers ... Yikes!" I ventured out on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway one sunny afternoon to see what would happen, and it turned out the Fortwo acquitted itself like an itty-bitty champ. I gunned it up to 75 mph, and at no time did I feel like various parts might start flying off the chassis. (Not the case with several other cars I've driven.) It felt pretty solid on the road, save for a few moments when it got hit by heavy winds. (The disproportionate height of the car makes it prone to sudden—but small—sideways shudders when a gust catches its broadside just right.) Another weakness: high-speed passing. The Fortwo has trouble going quickly from 45 to 65 mph, making it difficult to put long trucks in your rearview mirror.