2016 Smart ForTwo First Review
I've always liked the idea behind the Smart ForTwo more than the car itself. After all, like pickup trucks make sense for rural living, urban cars make a lot of sense for city dwellers. They're small, they only use a little gas, and they take up much less parking space in a crowded city. Unfortunately, the actual execution of the previous-generation Smart was, well, kind of awful. The transmission was jerky, the price was too high, the car was so narrow that the two seats were actually staggered a bit, and it was a drag to drive. The best thing I could say about it was that it was faster than walking; then again, so is riding a bike.
But here I am, fresh off driving the all-new 2016 Smart ForTwo around Portland, Oregon, and thinking, "Hey, this is kinda neat." The newest Smart has grown only a little in size, and it still adheres to its city-dweller niche -- you won't be seeing Smarts driving across the open roads of Montana anytime soon. But for urbanites who want a tiny car that's unique, interesting, fuel efficient, AND not a drag to drive, the new Smart ForTwo finally graduates to "deserves a look."
Credit goes to two key improvements. First, the new Smart is 3.8 inches wider, and it makes the car feel much more mature. On the highway it's stable instead of twitchy, your passenger sits right next to you rather than being offset toward the back, and despite the fact that the new Smart is the same 8.8-feet long as the previous ForTwo, it feels far more substantial than its predecessor. It also manages to be more maneuverable than before, with a 22-foot turning circle that makes U-turns possible on virtually any street. Aside from a riding lawnmower, there's probably no more maneuverable motorized vehicle you can buy.
The other notable upgrade is the 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, a huge improvement over the terrible single-clutch 5-speed automatic from the previous Smart. Like most dual-clutch transmissions it's a little jerky in parking maneuvers, but that's about the end of the annoyances, and compared to the herky-jerky transmission it replaces, it's a dramatic improvement. But the pro tip on the 2016 Smart ForTwo drivetrain is to get the new 5-speed manual. It makes the little Smart actually fun to drive, and does a better job exploiting the 0.9-liter 3-cylinder engine's 89 horsepower.
There's more of course. The new styling looks good on the road, with the big headlights and smiley-face grille giving it a pug-like, so-weird-it's-cute sensibility. Inside things are a little different. Generally the style looks good, especially the floating cluster for the audio and climate controls, and the cloth covering on the dash is a nice touch. However, the door panel plastics feel unreasonably cheap, and there's no soft place to rest your elbow; not even a fold-down armrest. The seats were comfortable though, and despite the small interior area there's enough room for my 6-foot 2-inch body to stretch out, although a tilt-telescope steering wheel would be nice. Available features include navigation, and even a backup camera and parking sensors, both of which seem absurd in a car small enough that you can touch the rear glass from the driver's seat.
The ForTwo doesn't offer CarPlay or Android Auto, but there is a free downloadable app called Smart Cross Connect that includes navigation, redundant audio controls -- its mounted position blocks the dash controls -- and other functions. We used it, and it has potential, but the early beta versions we had leave us withholding judgment for now.
So the Smart ForTwo is much improved, more comfortable, roomier, and better to drive. However, some drawbacks remain. First, fuel economy isn't quite as good as you'd expect of such a tiny car. Final figures aren't in, but Smart says it should be around 33 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. That's pretty good, and we saw the mid-30s during our drive, but it's not any better than you get in a Honda Fit, worse than the Toyota Prius C, and the Smart demands premium fuel, too. The automatic may be better, but it saps all the life out of the engine when pulling away from a stop, and it's reluctant to downshift, even if you're using the steering-wheel mounted paddles.
Then there's price. A base model Smart ForTwo Pure starts at $15,400, including the $750 destination charge; the automatic is $990 extra. That puts the price at $16,300 even before options, and although it comes standard with things like automatic climate control and an advanced stability control that compensates for crosswinds, it's still the same price as a lot of cars that have back seats, better fuel economy, or both. Move up the trim ladder, and it's not hard to equip a Smart that costs more than $20,000, and for a lot of people that's just too much.
Then again, for others it's fine. After all, people pay a premium for Macintosh computers not because they compute harder, but because Apple has a desirable brand prestige. Similarly, you could save a few bucks and get a Mitsubishi Mirage with a back seat and better fuel economy. But for some people, the unique styling, European pedigree, and super-maneuverable driving experience of the 2016 ForTwo are a ... wait for it ... Smart combination.
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