In case you didn't know, small is the new fast, the new black and the new cool. The success of the Lotus Elise has proved it's more important to be light than powerful. And now the Smart Fortwo will attempt to convince us small is big.
After gaining weight and girth for decades, car manufacturers around the world are dieting all of a sudden. Everybody's working on small cars. They only require tiny engines and sip fuel like a teetotal vicar.
Why didn't anybody think of this before? Hang on, they did. In fact, Europe and Japan is crammed with tiny, agile cars waiting for us to get over our obsession with gigantic SUVs. However, the biggest problem for anybody wanting to sell small cars in the US is still the perception of safety - who wants to be sitting in a minicar when it's hit by a giantcar? And this is where the Smart Fortwo hopes to score big.
Smart & SafeDesigned, engineered and built by Mercedes, the Smart Car set the standard for small car safety. It uses a Tridion safety cell, comprising three layers of steel that forms a wraparound monocoque. It's been described as a walnut shell, but also as the chassis rails of an SUV wrapped around you, leveling the playing field in the event of a collision.
Extra reinforcement bars in the sills, plus a bulkhead between the B-pillars, provide additional stiffening. There's also a strengthened pedal box to protect the driver's feet, while US versions get bigger bumpers. Meanwhile, the engine, fuel tank and battery are housed in crash-protected zones to prevent them intruding into the cabin. And placing the motor in the rear means there's less chance of cabin intrusion in a collision.
Add four airbags (front and side), belt tensioners, dashboard kneepad, anti-lock braking system and ESP stability control, and you're starting to get the picture.
Once you're convinced by the Fortwo's safety credentials, you can then begin to appreciate its real strengths - size, economy, price and unique style. These were intrinsic to the vehicle that began life as the brainchild of Nicolas Hayek, the founder of Swatch watches. His vision, born in 1989, was to create a city car that could be changed as easily as one of his watches. To this day, the plastic body panels on any Fortwo can still be interchanged in about two hours, with spare panels expected to cost from $1000, allowing a fresh look for your car on a regular basis.
Hayek searched for an automotive partner and embarked on a partnership with Mercedes Benz in '94. After three years of development, the Fortwo made its debut in '97 and production began in 7/98 in Hambach, France. The first cars were sold in 10/99, the same year Mercedes took full ownership of the company.
Smart PriceWe're getting the second generation Fortwo, rebuilt using lessons learned over the past eight years. They'll be distributed by Penske to 70 dealerships across the country.
Pricing is very competitive, with the basic Fortwo Pure starting at just $11590 plus tax and charges. It comes with a Mitsubishi-built one liter, three cylinder, 12v, 70hp, 68 lb-ft engine and five-speed auto box across the range. However, the Pure version is in stripped "Euro" trim with steel wheels, basic audio, manual windows and mirrors, but no air con!
Spend $13590 on the Fortwo Passion and you get alloy wheels, A/C, paddle shifts for the transmission, power windows and mirrors plus a CD player. Or for $16590 you can get the Fortwo Passion Cabriolet, complete with electric roof, MP3 head unit and CD changer.
With current exchange rates, Smarts are cheaper than in Europe and one of the most affordable cars on the road. The styling is slightly dorky but it's incredibly cute and got a good response from other road users.
Hybrids such as the Prius are generally dismissed in Europe, where diesels and lean-burn engine technology can show better fuel consumption. The Smart is one example, returning 40mpg city and 45mpg highway (using the '07 EPA calculations). Its frugality means the Smart is classed as an ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV), although US cars run a lower 10:1 compression than their European counterparts to compensate for lower fuel octanes.
This has resulted in a 0-60mph time in a leisurely 12.8sec. However, it's almost half a second quicker than its Euro counterparts, suggesting lower gearing on our cars. Top speed on all Fortwo models is limited to a generous 90mph because of the skinny tires and to avoid stability issues.
Think about the cheap price and fuel economy. If you're currently using an SUV or pickup as a daily driver and getting, say, 15mpg, you could go three times as far on the same tank of gas. You'd feel the savings immediately. And by using less fuel and emitting less waste, you're saving the planet!
Smart BrabusOne of the world's premier Mercedes tuners is also the largest Smart tuner. Established in '77, Brabus ventured into Smart cars shortly after they were introduced. Since then, they've set the standard for aftermarket microcars, which caught the attention of Mercedes-Benz. Although Brabus is currently distributed be CEC Wheels (www.cecwheels.com) in North America, its Smart parts and accessories will be offered exclusively through Smart dealers in the USA.
This exciting news follows Brabus' unveiling of its Ultimate 112 at Frankfurt IAA last year. It features a new front spoiler, side skirts and widebody fenders in order to accommodate 18x7" front and 18x8.5" rear Monoblock IV wheels. They're matched with 205/35-18 and 235/30-18 tires for improved grip.
They also developed a turbo upgrade and a stainless exhaust to bump the power to 110hp and 111 lb-ft. The interior isn't overlooked either, with every piece upgraded.
Only 112 vehicles were built for Europe, but stay tuned to discover what will be available from US dealers.
Smart StyleAs we said, the Smart Fortwo is rather dorky, but it's cute and women love it like a puppy...
The car comes in six shades - black, yellow and white are impregnated into the panels, so will never show a scratch. However, you can pay extra for blue, red or silver metallic paint. The Tridion safety cell comes in black, but you can pay for a silver finish, and there are six interior trim options, including leather.
We'd be tempted to build a black Fortwo with black Tridion cell and leather interior, but all-silver could work equally well. Whatever you do, get some wheels under it (see panel).
Driving the Smart feels surprisingly roomy. They may look small, but that doesn't mean they're cramped. There's also a decent amount of storage space in the back, considering its diminutive proportions.
As a frugal daily driver, the Fortwo has so many advantages over a regular car, including the ability to fit into tiny parking spaces. In the urban environment, they make so much sense you'll be kicking yourself for not getting one. All it takes is a refundable $99 deposit to reserve a car (www.smartusa.com). What could be simpler? But hurry, there are rumored to be more than 35000 people ahead of you!
The only reason we've not dashed out and bought one already is because we're hoping the infinitely cool Roadster might make it here (see panel).
Smartuki And DiabloSmart tuning isn't limited to the factory three cylinder motor. A handful of courageous tuners in Europe have swapped in motorcycle engines to achieve incredible power to weight ratios.
One of the first examples we came across is from the UK. Using the Suzuki GSX-R1000 motor into the trunk, 0-60mph in 4.2sec, quarter-mile in 12.4sec and a top speed of 132mph is possible. Allen Engineering, Z Cars and Smartuki are among those who succeeded in completing the swap. The latter sells a subframe kit for approximately $3700, although a complete kit (including engine, Quaife, driveshafts and exhaust) is approximately $12000 (www.smartuki.com).
We also found tuners in Portugal using the more powerful Suzuki Hayabusa GSX-1300R motor, mid-mounted in the cockpit in place of the passenger seat. They even incorporate the Suzuki instrument cluster into the dash and a Yoshimura exhaust.
Portuguese stunt team Arrepiado uses a similar Smart Hayabusa in its stunt shows. Visit www.arrepiado.com to take a peek. But if you want to be amazed, enter the search words "smart hayabusa" or "smart diablo" at either youtube.com or video.google.com and watch the action. You won't believe what people are doing with the Smart Car!
Smart Chassis TuningWith two different 15" wheels available from the factory, aftermarket wheel manufacturers have an opportunity to make an impact in the States.
We spoke with TSW and Tire Rack for advice but neither has established what will fit. However, the cheapest way to get more traction is to buy a set of rear wheels and put them on the front - a popular mod in Europe. The wider stock rears will accommodate 175/60 tires instead of the 155/60 fronts.
We also researched European companies like Brabus. Their Monoblock IV is offered in a 16x5.5" ET30 front, while the rear is quite aggressive at a 17x8" ET15. These allow 175/50-16 and 225/35-17 tires, respectively.
If you're after a true Euro look, Schmidt Wheels might be your answer. They offer the Revolution Space in 16" and 17" diameter, widths ranging from 6.5" to a stellar 9.5" and offsets of ET20 to ET30 (www.tunershop.com).
Already in stock in their Washington warehouse, H&R has had suspension kits for the Fortwo since they started selling parts to Canada after the Smart was introduced there in '04. Their Sport springs correct the ride height, dropping the rear 1.25". A Cup Kit is also available, including shocks. This lowers the front 1" and rear 1.25". When you think it's time to fit new wheels, or if you want to push out the stock wheels, H&R also has spacers for the unusual 3x112 bolt pattern (www.hrsprings.com).
Smart HouseAhead of Smart's US launch and the introduction of 70 new dealerships, Smart took over a house in Venice, CA and German designers overhauled the interior, adding incredible furnishings, Smart paraphernalia and artwork.
To identify the building, Fortwos were displayed in the front window and another was winched onto the split-level balcony.
The aim was to create a no-pressure environment in which the Smart Car could be viewed in a lifestyle context. Visitors were able to wander around the house from 10am-9pm and take a test drive in the Smart Cars that occupied the garage space.
Without the pressure of salesmen, it gave potential customers and curious observers the opportunity to discover Smart motoring in a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. Shame it was abandoned at the end of January once the dealerships were officially opened...
Smart AlternativesIn Europe, Smart offers five different motors for the Fortwo. They have the 70hp version we get, but also a detuned 61hp derivative and a 84hp turbo. Then there's also a 45hp diesel.
There's good and bad news for US buyers. The Smart turbo will likely be available here next year, priced higher than current offerings. However, the car's diesel, although boasting incredible fuel economy, has been deemed too slow for US buyers.
There's also a new Micro Hybrid Drive model that may come to the States, but plans are to offer it in Europe first. It's based on the Fortwo Pure and includes a belt-driven starter generator that allows the motor to shut off when the car is at idle or below 5mph. As soon as you release the brake or step on the gas, the engine starts immediately. This claims to reduce CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by 8%, giving the MHD the potential for 50mpg or better!
In previous years, European dealers also offered Smart Forfour and Roadster models. The Forfour is a four-door version of the Fortwo and is currently unavailable on the revised chassis. However, it might be reintroduced if there's sufficient demand.
The same is true of the sexy Roadster. Smart officials acknowledge there was high demand in Europe, so hope to have a new model. And if that does happen, there's a strong chance the car will be offered in North America in the future.
Finally, there's the Cross Town concept, which is being considered. Styled like a mini-SUV, the concept fits the US market and is rumored to be the next introduction since it clearly shares many parts with the Fortwo.