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Smart Car Offers Drivers New High MPG Option, Top Crash Rating
Those who have followed the development of Daimler AG's tiny and trendy microcar, the smart (lower case intentional), have surely wondered about this vehicle's safety. Now they need wonder no more. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently crash tested the 2008 smart fortwo and found it performed so well it earned the Institute's best ratings for front and side crash protection. Plus, its rear crash worthiness was rated as "acceptable," the Institute's second-highest rating.
Driving the smart fortwo in the United States, which we did recently in Northern California, serves as a clear reminder of just how different the smart really is. Like the VW New Beetle and Mini Cooper before it, the smart elicits looks: Our test drive became the subject of countless cell phone camera snapshots as we passed through downtown Palo Alto and San Jose. But unlike those cars, which reinvigorated an existing vehicle segment through nostalgia-laden styling, the smart is so small and so new that, to American eyes at least, it's unlike anything else on the road.
Daimler AG (and in recent times until now, DaimlerChrysler AG) has been teasing us with the prospect of a smart car in the U.S. ever since the brand's introduction in 1997. Ask the executives today to explain the wait, and they will say that the car wasn't ready until now. Indeed, the second generation smart fortwo, the one that we'll be getting here, was redesigned with the U.S. market in mind. The changes included ensuring the new car met emissions regulations in all 50 states, as well as U.S. crash standards. Still, it isn't difficult to see that Daimler is taking advantage of an opportunity: More than ever, U.S. buyers are taking into account the environmental impact of their vehicles and looking for, shall we say, smarter alternatives. And so it is that, having sold some 770,000 copies of the first-generation fortwo in 36 countries, the most compact automobile currently in production will take on the world's largest automotive market.
So how small is the smart? At just a hair over 106 inches long, the smart fortwo is over three feet shorter and about five inches narrower than the aforementioned Mini. That's small. But with an extra five inches in height and an upright driving position, the driver's view of the road is more commanding than the size suggests. The interior room is surprising, too. As the name indicates, the fortwo is strictly a two-seater, but those two will find plenty of leg- and headroom. While the cabin is narrow, the passenger seat is positioned six inches further back to avoid any unwanted shoulder rubbing. Cargo space is limited to the space behind the seats, which provides 7.8 cubic feet if you stack your luggage up to the beltline, or 12 cubic feet if you stack it to the roof.
Contributing significantly to the sense of interior space is the airy cabin. In an era of increasingly complex electronics and switchgear, the smart's dash layout brings refreshing new meaning to the term "spartan." The instrument panel appears to be floating over the passengers' feet, leaving the floor entirely open except for a couple of cupholders and the shift lever. The simple center-stack containing the stereo and an elegant climate control system is easy to see and use, and the rest of the dashboard is covered by a fabric that looks cool and feels tough. All of this is designed to create a sense of openness and calm, so claustrophobics should have nothing to worry about. In fact, smart is confident that any potential buyers concerned about fitting in the car need only sit in one to put their minds at ease, and we wholeheartedly agree.
One potential hurdle we didn't anticipate is the transmission. While technically a five-speed manual transmission, the clutch is computer controlled and shifting requires only tapping the gear lever, pushing one of the steering wheel-mounted paddles, or letting the automatic mode do all the work. Such a setup works great in ultra-high-performance machines where lightning-fast shifts are the name of the game, but the effect is less thrilling when toned down for use with a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder 70 horsepower engine. An up-shift in either manual or automatic mode pitches the car forward slightly as the power is cut, the gear changes, and after a long (by automated manual standards) delay, acceleration resumes. The delay probably isn't much longer than what might be expected of a hand-performed manual shift, but the sensation is a bit strange.
As a car designed for metropolitan use, smart engineers chose the automated manual solution to eliminate the inconvenience of working a clutch in stop-and-go traffic, while also avoiding the bulk of a conventional automatic unit. The system is foolproof: It won't allow over-revving, it resets to first gear from a stop, and it creeps slowly when the driver releases the brake pedal like a normal automatic. The smart even receives some tweaks specifically for the U.S. market, including the typical American PRND shift pattern, a shorter first gear ratio for sprightlier acceleration, and a longer fifth ratio for calmer cruising. Still, we're not sure how U.S. drivers will take to the shifting sensation, although it may only be a matter of acclimation over time.
The good news is that, other than the odd transmission feel, the smart fortwo drives remarkably well. The 12.8 second 0-60 mph time won't set any pulses racing, but we didn't have any trouble getting the smart up to speed when merging onto the highway. Once there, the cabin remains notably quiet, and even with the 1.0-liter engine working hard, very little engine buzzing gets through. The car feels a bit twitchy and exhibits a slight yawing motion at certain speeds - both products of the short 73.5 inch wheelbase and a good argument for keeping both hands on the wheel. While the smart seemed happy enough to cruise along relatively peaceful Highway 280 and flirt with its 90 mph top speed, a drive through Los Angeles in rush hour traffic would be a better test of the smart's highway credentials.
Of course, in the city, the smart fortwo is in its element. The car is unbelievably maneuverable, able to slip past obstacles, and make turns that simply are impossible in larger cars. Driving the smart requires readjusting one's spatial expectations. We almost invariably found ourselves with a foot to spare, even in what we thought were the tightest situations. Needless to say, parking is a cinch. Currently, smart is working with municipalities around the country to ensure drivers won't be ticketed for pulling off a park job perpendicular to the curb; so far, they say, the response has been positive. For those who do most of their driving in the city, the smart will have immediate appeal.
Efficiency is another area where small has a distinct advantage. Relying only on the principle of small displacement and low mass, the smart fortwo delivers 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, according to 2008 EPA standards. For the benefit of those not used to the EPA's revised standards for 2008, smart representatives are quick to point out that the smart would have achieved 40/45 mpg under the 2007 provisions. In any case, those are good numbers, if perhaps not as high as some might expect for such a phenomenally small car. The 10 gallon (8.7 gallon plus 1.3 gallon reserve) fuel tank offers a respectable range. One bummer: smart recommends premium 91 octane fuel to maximize power and efficiency, though it will get by on regular. On the plus-side, low exhaust emissions earn the fortwo an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) classification.
Safety may be a harder sell because of this car's tiny size in a world of much larger vehicles, but that job should be easier now because of the smart's very favorable crash test ratings from the IIHS. The key to this crashworthiness is the smart's so-called tridion safety cell, which is so central to this car's identity that its distinctive silver C-shape dominates the exterior design. The cell distributes the impact of a crash over the car's body and protects the occupants inside. The compact design of the smart also offers certain advantages. The rear-mounted engine is designed to break away and slide underneath the passenger compartment in the event of a rear impact, absorbing energy and reducing the rebound inherent in such a stiff structure. Furthermore, the short wheelbase means the likelihood of hitting an energy-absorbing axle in a side-impact is higher, while the high sitting position means better protection in side and frontal impacts. Playing supporting roles to the structure are two full-size front airbags and two side airbags, plus ABS and a standard electronic stability program that includes traction control.
Still, it remains to be seen if the American public, which notoriously associates size with perceived safety, will feel comfortable piloting such a small car even with its admirable crash test results. Much of smart's marketing efforts will be aimed at getting buyers to make the leap from their bigger-is-better intuition to embrace the company's intelligent engineering argument.
So how will smart get its message out? So far, the marketing tactics have been as unconventional as the car itself. The company did a road show that took the fortwo to 50 different U.S. cities, racking up some 50,000 test drives. A $99 reservation program through the company's website also netted over 30,000 reservations for the car from 50 states, all without traditional marketing and before a dealer network was in place. The company says its target buyers do not fit a specific demographic. Rather, they are what the company calls "thought leaders" or "early adopters," people that smart hopes will think of the simple and innovative fortwo as the automotive equivalent of an iPod.
Ultimately, buyers will purchase smart cars at one of 74 "smart centers" located in major urban centers around the country, about a third of these stand-alone facilities with the rest "store-in-store" operations within existing Mercedes-Benz dealerships. In a unique move for a major automotive manufacturer, Daimler is relying on an existing network - the Penske Automotive Group - to serve as smart's official distributor.
The 2008 fortwo pure starts at $11,590. The $13,590 fortwo passion coupe adds a panorama roof, alloy wheels, radio with CD player, air conditioning, a three-spoke steering wheel with shift paddles, and power windows as standard equipment. At $16,590, the fortwo passion cabriolet replaces the roof with a retractable hard top. The side roof bars can be removed and stowed in a special compartment in the tailgate for the full open-top experience. All three models come with the same engine and transmission.
Dave Schembri, the president of smart USA, is confident that after residual values and long-term costs are taken into account, the smart fortwo will prove to be the least expensive car to own in the U.S. There are a lot of reasons that people will buy a fortwo, but if that selling point pans out, that may just be the smartest of them all.
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