Even as a city dweller, the Smart ForTwo has never been appealing to me. Appalling is too strong, but goofy and irrelevant are not. And like most American car shoppers, I buy more car than I actually need most of the time in order to get more of what I want. Niche vehicles have a rough road here, even as second cars in the family.
Thus, it’s no surprise that parent company Daimler gets rich selling Mercedes-Benz luxury sedans and SUVs in the U.S. but has hit potholes with its little Smart ForTwo, a special-purpose microcar for congested megacities — or not so much a car, even, as a safer and more comfortable all-weather golf cart.
Part of that struggle also has been self-inflicted. The gasoline-powertrain Smart ForTwo was a terrible car that improved to just so-so with a 2016 redo. Plus, its 33-mpg city gas mileage rating was less-than-eye-popping economy. Not much to love, even for a city slicker who found the goofy looks and tiny wheels endearing, and might use one from Daimler’s Car2Go car-sharing fleet of blue-and-white Smarts. But now, Smart has pivoted to become an all-electric brand for 2018 with an improved battery version of the little car.
Given the history, however, I was prepared to be underwhelmed when a 2018 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive cabriolet showed up on my block for testing.
I was not. At all.
A week on crowded Washington, D.C., streets made me reconsider how much car I really need when a walk, a bike or a bus is not the answer. Here are seven ways the Smart turned out not to be dumb:
1. Least Expected: It’s Fun
The gasoline Smart ForTwo was a dog. The electric is not. Sure, the stopwatch ticks past 11 seconds from zero-to-60 mph, but that misses the point. The 80-horsepower electric motor’s instant 118 pounds-feet of torque delivers an entertaining whoosh from traffic lights and is quick up to about 40 mph. And a ridiculously tiny 22.8-foot turning circle, rear-wheel drive and improved handling make it more go-cart than golf cart for zipping around the city.
2. More Fun If It’s the Cabrio
Slide the folding canvas top back and enjoy the sounds and sights of the city, where taking in the scene is as much about looking up as out. Full disclosure: While the top folds full to the rear, I found it ideal in the sunroof setting that leaves the glass rear window up. Fully collapsing the top didn’t feel any more open, and the folded top pretty much wipes out your rear visibility. The open top is not available on the base model; it adds about $2,500 on the top two trim levels but is more than worth it.
3. It’s Now Quiet
Switching out the Smart’s unrefined gasoline powertrain and its unpleasant noises for an electric motor is a sea change (or a hear change, as it were).
4. It Feels Safe
The cage design may have earned the current Smart good scores in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash testing done so far, but more importantly, the Smart doesn’t feel as small as it is when you’re in it (just don’t picture how small you look from the outside).
5. It’s Roomy in Its Own Way
The ForTwo is just that (though look around in traffic and note how many drivers are solo). But in the latest Smart, two of you now have real elbow room with a real center armrest. And, at 6-foot-2, I had no trouble finding a comfortable driving position — not always true even in bigger cars. There’s limited cargo room, but it had all I needed for routine errands, helped substantially by having the soft-top to open for tall or odd shapes. And how often would you have to pay for delivery to bring home a new flatscreen, anyway?
6. It’s Fun to Park
For city folk, finding a good street parking space is a special pleasure. When you see a prime spot open, you feel an urge to take it — even if it’s not your destination. And in the Smart, you feel so smart when you wedge its 8.8 feet into leftover curb space everyone else had to drive past. Parking perpendicular to the curb is illegal in D.C. or I could have really nerded out: Parked that way, six Smarts would fit in the curb space you’d need to parallel park two Honda Pilots.
7. Range Is Relative
The soft-top Smart’s 57-mile EPA-estimated range, 58 for the coupe (compare them and the ex-gasoline models here) sounds small compared to some bigger EVs, but don’t get stopped by that. In city use where average trip speed is 12 to 15 mph, that’s also a lot of travel time, and it’s enough to lap all the way around D.C.’s borders. Recharging the 17.6-kilowatt-hour battery from zero takes three hours on 240 volts. There’s no DC fast-charging option, but I’d never have that at home anyway. And in this city, public charging is fairly widespread and getting more so.
There are some things I’d change, of course.
The Smart ForTwo needs a front hood design less cumbersome than the plastic contraption that comes completely off and hangs on straps while, for example, you add washer fluid. It’s tedious and time-consuming to get it properly back in place and secured. Practice did not make it easier or faster.
A city car, not to mention one with limited rear visibility, needs a better backup camera system than a postage-stamp image in the rearview mirror that’s dim, fuzzy … and dumb. This is particularly so if I paid $1,780 for the multimedia upgrade with a sharp 7-inch screen that will help me find a public charger but not to help me avoid backing into it.
Given its narrow urban focus, Smart should consider a braking option like the excellent e-Pedal in the 2018 Nissan Leaf. I love the one-foot operation in tedious stop-and-go traffic.
But on balance, the 2018 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is an excellent zero-emissions city car. And it’s relatively affordable, even before counting the fuel-cost savings: The test car was the top-trim Cabrio Prime, which adds features such as heated leather seats and costs $32,180, including the multimedia upgrade and $750 destination — and that would be offset in this city by about $10,000 in federal and local credits. The value play would be the base coupe, which starts at $24,650, or about a net $16,000 after subsidies to park at my house.
Most importantly, to my surprise, the Smart met most of my needs most of the time, and it was actually fun to zip around in.
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