- Best turning circle
- Small footprint
- Passenger space
- Available forward collision warning
- High-strength steel safety cell
Let's answer the main question first: Is the transmission in the '16 Smart Fortwo better than that unbearable juddering thing in the outgoing generation? The answer is yes and yes.
Those two answers are because there are two transmission options: a five-speed manual that comes as standard, or a six-speed dual-clutch that acts like an automatic but also lets the driver get involved when the whim arises.
Sorry to be unusually harsh on the old transmission, but it really was a deal breaker in what was otherwise an intriguing little car. Presumably it was the only thing that would fit in such tight quarters, but now parent company Mercedes-Benz has had the time and inclination to engineer better choices.
Our test drive didn't allow the luxury of trying the manual version, but most American buyers will stump up the extra $990 and go for the auto option anyway. Which is fine, approaching Benz-smooth. There's still the merest hint of a lurch from time to time, something that might be blamed on what is no doubt a small flywheel. But Mercedes-Benz technicians have also said there's some transmission and throttle mapping software to be finalized. On deceleration, the gearbox has a tendency to downshift too soon.
There might be enquiries, too, about a suspension troubled by speed bumps because there's only so much flex in such a short wheelbase. Well, that's improved too, with more forgiving spring rates. Best to go for the smaller wheel/bigger tire sidewall combination, but the Fortwo now feels more like a "normal" car and less like a roller skate.
The final pressing question is probably about the engine, considering Americans had a naturally aspirated three-cylinder unit in the first generation while the Europeans had a turbo version. The good news is that we now have the turbo. It's still a three-potter, displacing 898 cubic centimeters and making 89 hp with 100 lb-ft of torque using 91-octane fuel, for a car that only weighs around 2,000 pounds. It's a new all-aluminum engine, developed in collaboration with Renault (there's a Smart Forfour in Europe, which shares a lot of mechanicals with a Renault Twingo). It's no 911, but the new Smart Fortwo is a turbocharged rear-engined, rear-drive car. Top speed is now a tad quicker at 96 mph.
As the name suggests, it's a two-seater. This second generation retains the unusually good headroom and legroom of the first, along with a slightly elevated driving position. Then it adds some more shoulder room, thanks to the car being 3.9 inches wider than before. We're still talking cozy here, but personal space is preserved.
The track is correspondingly wider and gives the car a stable feel, accentuated by a staggered tire size arrangement of 165/65 at the front and 185/60 out back. And if drivers of the previous generation ever felt vulnerable when overtaking 18-wheelers or going over a bridge in gusty conditions, the wide track is augmented by Crosswind Assist, a function of the stability/traction control system that can lightly brake individual wheels to keep everything pointed straight. It's standard throughout the range and is also featured in Mercedes-Benz vans, the Sprinter, and Metris.
Stability is joined by maneuverability. The Fortwo has a ridiculously small (and we mean that in a good way) turning circle of 22.8 feet. Since this is primarily a city car, the talent for making tight U-turns will seem like a gift from above. But actually it's a gift from France, where the Smart is built.
The Fortwo giveth, but the Fortwo also taketh away—in the form of unusual ergonomics. After a short time, the seats feel like they have a convex shape, both the back and the bottom cushion. Unless the $100 smartphone cradle option is ordered, there's nowhere convenient to put your phone. Unfortunately, the cradle's location makes it impossible to reach a few radio presets. Granted, the designers didn't have much of an area to play with, but surely they could have come up with a solution more elegant than this. And surely they could have measured a few cups before installing two cup-holders that are too small for anything except take-out espresso containers. On the plus side, the little sliding magnifying glass for the air conditioning/heater controls is a great example of clever answers to problems of limited space.
An essential part of the Fortwo's design is the high-strength steel safety cell—like an exterior rollcage—that does a great job of protecting its occupants, in conjunction with eight standard airbags and optional forward collision warning. The cell also becomes one of the elements in every Smart's two-tone color scheme.
Trim levels are Pure, Passion, Prime, and Proxy. Try not to tell anyone that information during the soup course. Standard equipment includes automatic climate control, cruise control, LED daytime running lights, multi-function buttons on the steering wheel, and Bluetooth connectivity. Higher trim levels have different designs of alloy wheels, different interior material options, power mirrors, and paddle shifters for the dual-clutch transmission.
A convertible version follows in summer 2016, with an all-electric version later that year. And yes, there's a Brabus in the works, but we don't know yet if that will be available in the United States.
There's a chance the Fortwo might still be ahead of its time, that urban car-sharing schemes around the world will discover the virtues of a small footprint mixed with useful human space. In which case, few private individuals will actually buy one, but we'll all be leasing them for those times when we really need one.
- More parking space options
- Suspect ergonomics
- Not exactly practical