The microscopic personal transportation device known as the Smart Fortwo has begun to infect American urbanites from coast to coast like some newly developed nanotechnology injected into the bloodstream of a willing populace looking for the solution to all of their mobility needs in the pages of a Michael Crichton novel.
If you live outside of a big city you may not have seen one with your own eyes yet. Be warned, every day more and more of the two passenger pods are entering the flow of traffic, gaining acceptance in a world that is utterly foreign to them, but ready to let down its defenses in the name of fuel and space efficiency.
And it's making me sick.
A yard shorter than a MINI Cooper, and narrow enough to split lanes on an interstate, the greatest asset of the Fortwo (most people just refer to it as 'The Smart,' but that's the brand name, so let's stop that now) is its ability to fit in spaces between vehicles that you might not have found suitable for jaywalking through before.
To take full advantage of this, however, you need to take a step through the looking glass and acclimate yourself to an automotive reality completely different than the one in which you currently exist.
The first time I tried to park the Fortwo on the streets of Manhattan I drove it around for a disappointing 20 minutes looking for a spot, about average on a weeknight in my neighborhood. I'd passed by a few promising spaces, but ultimately decided that they were too small. I didn't want to embarrass myself by not being able to fit the automotive equivalent of a puffy coat into one of them. Finally I found one that looked good, backed the car in, and got out to admire my handiwork.
Despite the difficulty Shaq has shooting free throws, many people don't realize that the hoop of a basketball net is nearly twice the size of the ball, seemingly larger than that if you play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Standing there staring at the Fortwo, with what appeared to be half a car's length of room on either side of it, I might as well have been wearing a gaudy red, white, blue and gold uniform waiting to be doused with a bucket of confetti.
Once I understood what was possible in the Fortwo, I attacked the challenge of parking with gusto and rarely needed to go around the block even once to find a suitable place to put it. When I intentionally tried to fit it into impossibly small spots in an effort to discover its limits, I was more often than not surprised to find that it had none. At times it was as if the Fortwo was able to bend space around it. Keanu never had it so good.
Getting from one parking spot to another is a different story.
As tall as it is wide, the Fortwo offers passengers a high and upright seating position with legroom on par with a Chevy Suburban. This is a boon in traffic that has yet to be eradicated of skyscraping SUVs, and helps you get over any initial fears you have about driving around in what is essentially a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe come to life.
As long as you don’t avert your eyes from straight ahead, and are able to ignore the whimsical design of the dashboard and interior, it is possible to imagine that you are behind the wheel of something that requires a license to drive. Yes, your passenger is a bit closer than might like, but that should just encourage you to hang out with people you actually enjoy being with.
It's only when you turn your head and find the rear window about a foot from your nose that you get that "oh yeah, I'm in an oil drum with an engine" feeling, and start fearing for you life. You shouldn't, at least not much.
The Fortwo does pretty well in crash tests carried out by both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The exposed "Tridion" safety cell that wraps around the cabin acts like an eggshell to absorb energy in a collision, making up for the lack of large crush zones found in larger automobiles.
Contrary to its futuristic shape, the Fortwo gets its power from a traditional gasoline-burning engine. One liter small and 70 horsepower weak, the three-cylinder motor is mounted between the rear wheels. Up to 30 mph acceleration is good enough to get you from one stoplight to the next without being run over from behind and, if you have enough time to get there, a governed 90 mph top speed is achievable.
Traveling slightly slower than that, say at 60 mph, the Fortwo has a smooth and stable ride for its petite size and is reasonably quiet inside, even in convertible form like my test vehicle as long as the top is up.
You will need to keep a firm hand on the steering wheel if you get caught in the wake of a passing truck, and that big flat face creates a lot of wind noise as pushes through the air, but since you don't have to talk to anyone behind you, it's not a problem.
The suspension is on the soft side, all the better to soak up the cobbled lanes of old Europe, or one would be led to believe. On heaving, potholed city streets the springs actually act like four tiny pogo sticks with four out of sync gremlins hopping on them, causing the car to bob and weave along its way. The feeling is exaggerated by the elevated seating position, and hitting any bumps larger than a dead pigeon results in a loud, jarring crash.
In a flash of what I thought at the time was brilliance, I brought the Fortwo to Grand Prix New York, an indoor go-kart track near Manhattan. After about 15 minutes attacking the half-mile circuit of hairpins and corkscrews, I felt myself sweating profusely, then caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror and noticed a green tint spreading across my face.
It was the first time I'd ever been car sick, and I was not alone. While I sat there recovering at trackside, the cameraman with me took the Fortwo out for a spin. Three laps later, he pulled up next to me with an "I'm feeling it too" look in his eyes and handed me the key.
Granted, the Fortwo isn't meant for this kind of nonsense, and aside from its illness-inducing wobble, the standard stability and traction controls do a great job of keeping the car upright and pointed forward through the twisties. It's just that in the real world, it goes about its business in too harsh and exhausting a manner to ever let you sit back and bask in the glory of knowing that you are saving $500 a month in parking-garage fees.
To make matters worse, the Fortwo comes with what is essentially a manual transmission that feels like it is being operated by a robot that hasn't quite learned how to drive a stick.
Instead of a traditional automatic design, there are electric servos to operate the clutch and shift gears for you, and they are very lazy. Hit the accelerator and you can wait for up to a five count before anything actually happens. When it does, the shift is accompanied by the car rearing up like a bronco on that cushy suspension, then dropping its nose to the ground like a dressage horse, whipping your head in the process. Unfortunately the Fortwo never learns how to do it any better, and it can be a bit unnerving not knowing what to expect when you step on the gas.
The only thing you can be sure of is that you are driving the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid automobile, but don't get too excited about that. People who stop to talk to you about the car — and there are many — think it gets "what, 80, 90 mpg, right?" The figure is actually a much more mundane 41 mpg highway. Not bad, but not oil-independence good either.
If the Fortwo was the cheapest car you could buy, you might be able to overlook all of its faults, but it's not. At $11,495, the hardtop version costs more than both the Hyundai Accent and Chevy Aveo5. Each of those come with backseats, more power and gas mileage in the mid-30s.
On the other hand, the convertible version is the lowest-priced drop-top available at $16,495. With a low beltline it offers a unique open-air experience that is not unlike being pushed around in an office chair.
You won't want to take advantage of it too often, the wind buffets like a tropical storm and the cloth roof stacks so high in the back that your rearview mirror becomes useless, but it is fun while trawling along at bicycle commuter pace.
In places like New York and San Francisco people spend $12,000 on watches, so the Fortwo should do well as a fashion accessory, if nothing else. Once all of the early adapters have one, it's hard to say what the attraction will be for people who actually need a car that does car things.
When the most appealing thing about your ride is its capacity to stand still in very confining places, one of you may need professional help.
2008 SMART FORTWO CABRIOLET
Base Price: $16,495
Type: Rear-engine, rear-drive, two-passenger, two-door convertible
Engine: 1.0-liter inline-3 cylinder
Power: 70 horsepower, 68 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 5-speed automated manual
MPG: 33 city/41 hwy
What do you think of the Fortwo?
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