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2013 Smart ForTwo Coupe Passion Road Test

Europe's phone booth on wheels comes to America and finds some friends, but not among our staff.

What It Is/Who It's For
Those brave early-adopting freedom fighters struggling to beat the hopeless, wretched system of parking inequality and congestion injustice.
Best Thing
Brilliant packaging that lends itself to a surprising amount of roominess.
Worst Thing
Nightmarish transmission, parade float handling, that unnerving feeling that you're driving a Hello Kitty phone booth on wheels.
Snap Judgment
A European import as nonsensical and out of place as Bjork.


Let's get this out of the way first. Here are some things larger than a Smart:

  1. an industrial foodservice-grade air conditioner
  2. a beluga whale
  3. a handicapped bathroom stall
  4. a Slurpee machine
  5. W.H. Taft's coffin
  6. an African elephant's gluteus superficialis
  7. the 1981 Renault Le Car
  8. eight Segways lashed together
  9. your average bull mastiff

You get the idea. At a mere 8 feet, 10 inches long, the "smart coupe" (as its marketing division wants you to write, hip lowercase spelling and everything) is smaller than the lawnmowers used to maintain the crabgrass around parent company Mercedes-Benz's South Florida dealerships. It's America's tiniest car, even shorter than the elephantine Scion iQ at 10 feet and one inch. The dream of most Smart owners and proselytizers is to plant their cars nose-in to curbside parking, three to a space. (Turns out, meter maids don't have a sense of humor, especially if you park it sideways, nose-in, within a designated motorcycle parking section.) As Europe's finest city car, 14 years running, it's the sort laughed at by galumphing American tourists in dark Hamburg alleyways with booze-induced frivolity, until they end up renting one.

But the second-generation of the Smart made its way to America, home of the 5-lane parkway. It's being sold in Mercedes-Benz dealerships (outside of South Florida, even) as our savior against city congestion, gas prices, parking frustration, and packaging inefficiency, but not merciless teasing by high schoolers. And thanks to the unique peculiarities of the American transportation situation, it does little of these things well.

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Caught in a good mood, News Director Keith Buglewicz decided to tweet something charitable about the Smart: "It's faster than walking." But otherwise, his initial statement upon learning the little Smart had been delivered stood pat: "I want to make it abundantly clear that I want nothing to do with the Smart. I'll drive it around the block, just to reaffirm my hatred."

Buglewicz is a man of many opinions. This is one of them -- one that's shared with the rest of our office.

What We Drove

Our Smart Coupe started life as a $12,490 runabout, but was eventually optioned up -- including the grating "Passion" moniker -- to an are you kidding me, Andy Kaufman $19,850. This included $2,400 for the A03 Passion package, which included air conditioning, power windows and side mirrors (that were also heated), electric power steering, rain-sensing wipers, and a panoramic fixed roof. Our car also came with 15-inch alloy wheels, two-tone leather and mesh seats with heat, fog lamps, a pricey touchscreen navigation system, and a $200 car alarm, which hasn't been a separate option on a new vehicle since the Renault Le Car.

You know what that near-$20,000 figure doesn't include? Steering wheel audio system controls, a tilting and telescoping wheel, cruise control (which Smart has the audacity to charge for in a $280 package), a trip computer (same package), and door-mounted locks -- all of which can be found in a $10,900 Nissan Versa sedan, which also includes a backseat and a relatively different sense of automotive malaise. But you can't change the plastic body panels on a Versa. So there's that.

On the life-preserving front, every Smart comes with front and side airbags, knee and side curtain airbags, and smart's patented 4-star, Euro-NCAP-tested Tridion frame architecture, which comes with the promise to save your life in a crash but also the unnerving feeling that it won't.

The Commute

Like an old Saab, Smart tucks its key deep down in the center console. Starting it presents a cacophony of mechanical distress from the 3-cylinder, 1.0-liter engine mounted somewhere in back. It's a coarse, wheezy unit from Mitsubishi, sounding like a product of Third World laborers, whose greatest claim to fame is scaring on-ramp drivers with all but 70 horsepower. Lest you think our opinion of its tiny power output is just a Freudian manifestation, try merging into 70-mph freeway traffic in a car that takes nearly 13 seconds just to reach 60 mph. Like Old Grand-Dad 100-proof, it'll put hair on your chest.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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The oval-shaped brake pedal hinges from the floor from a rubber accordion boot, similar to you'd find in an Austin America recently pulled from a flooded quarry; using them requires pushing up and forward, a sensation that takes a lot of getting used to. Yet the brakes themselves have excellent feel and stopping power, aided by the fact that there's only 1,850 pounds of car to stop. The suspension rattles over surface aberrations and lends itself to more than a little body roll, which is probably a good time to remind yourself that the Smart received a good-but-not-great three-star rating in NHTSA rollover protection.

At least the radio sounds excellent. The optional navigation system, with its Windows XP chimes (!), costs $1,290, but looks like it's a decade old. The seat heaters work readily and strongly, a fact I found out when they mysteriously turned on by themselves. The auto-down power windows only went down automatically when they felt like it. The laughably small sun visors, already encumbered by their uselessness, had to be pushed forward to swivel out. And during the course of our testing, a strange beeping noise emanated from the engine when the Smart was put in Drive, which was only especially irritating when we had to actually drive the car. After an hour, we'd be happy to confess a war crime to the Marines.

The Grocery Run

The interior is light and airy, a victim of being contained by a car shaped approximately like a Spanish flan. Thanks to the brilliance of goal-focused Teutonic/Swiss engineering, the Smart Coupe is reminiscent of Doctor Who's iconic TARDIS: it's far larger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Legroom was plentiful; I actually had to move the seat forward, which may reflect my own stature instead of the car's. And despite its school-bus driving position, headroom is a boon in a Spanish flan.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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It is entirely possible to fit two cases of beer in the "trunk" without receiving a ticket for such frivolous, money-grubbing nonsense as "restricted visibility."

A polycarbonate panoramic roof only adds to the effect of being inside a phone booth or the upper lid of a George Foreman grille, especially if it's been sitting in a Los Angeles parking lot for a few hours. There's a bit of forced funkiness in the interior, like the "hidden Mickey" in the fist-shaped tachometer and clock that rest gently on pods above the air vents.

The handbrake lever is 3 feet long and hewn from a rough cut of steel, like the handle on one of those playground shovels. There's no left foot rest where there should be one, only a strange carpeted lump that makes the driver feel like he's stepping on a cat. Faux white leather with contrasting stitching looks attractive in a Siegfried and Roy way, and philosophically it advertises the same: an attempted dose of flashy European boldness behind a fake, meaningless veneer. Plus, the edge of the dashboard was falling apart. So there was also that.

The Weekend Fun

A reflection of modern engineering progress, the Smart car is surprisingly planted on the road, and it feels sprightlier than it actually is. It is noisy, though. And all Smarts should come with a bumper sticker on the rear window, liberally borrowed from the Volkswagen Microbus club, which says, "It IS floored!"

This is before we get to the absolute worst part of the Smart, the wretched component that focuses our ire laser-like across the entire wretched machine, the one piece that renders the car near-undrivable: the 5-speed semi-automatic gearbox, a device that must have passed Smart's R&D department with more than a few insider bribes. When it's time to shift, the entire car tips forward a good 5 inches, the shift itself takes two seconds to change gears, and the engine dips well below the 6,000-rpm redline as the insultingly-named "Smartshift" decides what to do with itself: Am I a petunia? Am I a blue whale? Oh look, I'm a transmission, and I change gears! The steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters become a necessity for manual control to somewhat save the day. With such a pig-headed thing sapping what little power there is, the entire car feels like a wind-up toy being dragged in reverse. In traffic, it shifts like a student driver but without the pleasure of someone to yell at. On open roads, it feels like a log flume.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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When Motor Trend tested the Smart Coupe in 2011, they proclaimed it as an affordable exotic: "If you like meeting new people, this thing is the ultimate conversation-starter." Most of those conversations begin with baffled expressions and raised eyebrows, guaranteed to be traumatic for high school chess club survivors like myself. I found myself rolling down the window at stoplights, yelling "this isn't my car! I did NOT pay money for this!" It's different, that's for sure. "It looks like an angry bug," observed a friend, after she was finally able to contain her laughter. Most Americans won't get it; "Where are the clowns?" they asked me on the Santa Monica promenade, along with the always-popular, "Does it come in men's sizes?"

Some people will like that sort of thing. We didn't. It feels like the car that Steve Carrell's schlubby character drives in a coming-of-age romance movie.

Lastly, over the course of 300 or so miles, first stop-and-go city traffic to Santa Monica, and then a freeway jaunt to Irvine and up to Pasadena, the Smart returned us 35.7 miles per gallon, right on the nose of its 36 combined mpg. It sounds pretty good, until you get out of the car and look at it and realize that there are arrays of under-$20,000 cars that match it in economy with the added bonus of not looking like a Smart. The Prius C comes to mind. As does the Chevy Cruze Eco. And, if you really need to carry your drunken contortionist gymnast buddies around, there's the Scion iQ, with its theoretical back seat.

Lastly, the Smart has the perverse gall to demand 91-octane premium gas, which raises a host of Yugo-inspired small-car jokes: How do you double the value of a Smart? Fill up the gas tank.

Summary

As I've been doing for the past 1,200 words or so, it's easy to make jokes at the Smart's expense. But for singles, trendy urban dwellers, curious early adopters, and occasional empty nesters who don't need their minivans anymore, the Smart makes sense, at least on paper. There's a reason why they love these in Europe: With a three-cylinder turbodiesel, or even with a micro-hybrid drive, 60-mpg figures make the entire experience a little better to swallow. And it does grab attention, especially in America where this sort of car targets people who couldn't care less about cars: "the un-car," as Smart calls it. Very self-aware marketing. It's in a void of its own creation, the one where you're either a dullard in a Kia or a beautiful, delicate, free-spirited snowflake.

Problem is, living in a void kills everything else. And ultimately, like goat brain tartar, Sinead O'Connor, and free higher education, the Smart is a European export that doesn't translate very well to these shores. Small cars like these resort to intellectual flattery and more than a heap of pretentiousness -- as if driving the wretched things will make you Th!nk, or raise your iQ, or make you seem Smart-er. But in America, where objects this size are routinely flung from catapults in rural pumpkin-tossing contests, it's not an intelligent choice. It's frustrating to drive. It's purposely goofy. Gas mileage didn't match its size. A Kia Rio has the same gas mileage and more room to boot. No matter how easy it is to park, you'll still need an entire parking space. And everything inside felt built to a price, which makes you wonder why it's $19,850. As of this writing, you can lease one for $99 per month, which is some compelling Mercedes-Benz bribery to lure hipsters into the showroom while they peddle GL550s across the floor.

"A solution seeking a problem, instead of a problem with a solution," said Keith, after he wiped the foam from his mouth and rekinked his 6-foot tall spinal cord from our baby-blue Smart Coupe Passion. Indeed.

There are many things one can buy for $19,850. A BMW R1200 GS Adventure motorcycle is one of them. This is another.

Choose wisely.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $19,850
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 34 mpg
EPA Highway: 38 mpg
EPA Combined: 36 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 313.2 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes

"C'mon, Smart. Make the next-generation version of this an actual, usable car. Make it have pedals that work the way we expect. Make it have a transmission that isn't horrible. Just make it work as well as the idea did in your heads when you were dreaming it up." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"A very specific car for a very specific buyer. Kinda like the Mazda MX-5 or late, lamented RX-8." -Joel Arellano, Associate Editor
“The Smart ForTwo is a true a true application of the European-style microcar. While well-intentioned, the Smart doesn’t necessarily excel in any one category, save for being really small. The comfort, safety, fuel economy and overall value readily available in many sub-compact cars outshine the novelty of the ForTwo.” -Matthew Askari, Associate Editor
"The pedals felt and were positioned like that of my ride-on lawn mower. I don't want to even start in on the transmission. It's like a novice driver who was learning how to drive with a manual transmission. Even that may be too much praise." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

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