Preview Drive: 2008 smart fortwo (coupe and convertible)

Coming soon to U.S., the nothing-else-like-it smart car looks like fun, but sequential manual gearbox detracts from the pleasure

by James M. Flammang

2008 smart fortwo Passion cabriolet

SAN JOSE, California - Psst! Hey, buddy, are you looking for a car that's different? One that looks and drives like nothing else on the road?

Well, look no further. Just get ready to head on down to your smart dealer to sign up for a brand-new fortwo coupe or convertible.

Incidentally, that suggestion has nothing to do with the intelligence of dealership employees. No, the "smart" company chooses not to capitalize the first letter in the corporate name.

Capitalized or not, the smart car has been turning heads in Europe for several years now, from London to Paris and beyond. First-generation smart fortwo models may also be seen in Canada and Mexico.

Unlike everything else on the market, the smart fortwo has no real competition. For one thing, it's a two-seater. But even though it holds only two passengers, it's not a sports car or pickup. For that reason, a certain number of shoppers are sure to scoff at the smart car. And many Americans automaticaly shun a car that invites mockery.

Others, of course, will gravitate toward the fortwo, attracted not only by its cute and unique appearance but by the prospect of appealing gas mileage. They'll also be lured by the smart car's price, which starts at just $11,590 in Pure (base) coupe form. Moving up to a Passion coupe (yes, that's the model designation) raises the outlay to $13,590, while a Passion cabriolet (convertible) stickers for $16,590.

Famed automotive personality Roger Penske is chairman of the new company. David Schembri serves as president. "This is a new adventure, obviously, for us," Penske said during the smart fortwo's American media debut. "We've put together a good smart team."

Up to now, all marketing has been done on the Internet, which drew some 34,000 prospects by late October. More than 30,000 people have made "reservations," putting up $99 well before the car goes on sale. That deposit entitles the buyer to choose a smart car in exactly the form that's desired. Every car coming into the U.S. has a person's name assigned to it. When the car arrives, a dealer will make up a purchase order and ask for full payment.

Engineering of the smart car's engine and chassis, as well as safety technology, comes from Mercedes-Benz. Surprisingly, this micro-sized car has a rear-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive - not unlike the original Volkswagen Beetle. Naturally, the smart folks wouldn't mind seeing their model turn into a comparable sales phenomenon.

Actually, this isn't the first smart car to find its way onto American roads. Several years back, the ZAP organization - best known for electric vehicles - began to import first-generation fortwo coupes and convert them to American standards.

As demonstrated on a test-drive in 2005, the ZAP version had one flaw: its transmission. Rather than a manual gearbox or a full automatic, that earlier smart car contained a sequential manual transmission. It's an actual manual gearbox, but has no clutch pedal. In ordinary driving, however, the ZAP smart car tended to jerk its way along, sloppily moving from one gear to the next, thereby detracting from the pleasure of driving a car that's supposed to be fun.

Unfortunately, the new "official" version uses the same harsh-shifting transmission, and it's the only choice. Judged by an afternoon spent behind the wheel of a Passion coupe, the transmission remains a drawback. One road-tester even suggested that the fortwo behaved like a "bucking bronco."

Gear changes weren't much better when using the available paddle shifters, which operated with a rather long delay and still-sloppy engagement. You can overcome the problem in Auto (fully automatic) mode by pushing gently on the gas, but that procedure didn't always work. In fact, it was impossible to predict what the car would do, at any given time. To pass or merge, the smart car might react appropriately. Or, it might just sit and ponder, then give a sloppy downshift that produced little action.

Without a downshift taking place, action could be nearly nonexistent. Dropping down into first gear, the transmission even delivered an occasional "clunk." To keep shifts relatively smooth, it was necessary to pay close attention to the gas pedal. Relax concentration and push too hard, and some jerks, squishiness, and/or delays were inevitable.

In president Schembri's view, the sequential transmission provides a: "unique driving experience," promising a "good combinatin of performance and economy." Unique it is, but not everyone will find the experience utterly delightful. "Of course, you have to get used to it in the beginning" said Anders Jensen, head of the smart brand team at Daimler AG.

Strangely enough, the transmission in a Cabriolet, driven later, proved much easier to control. Not nearly as much orneriness or slipperiness occurred during gear changes, which felt closer to those of an actual automatic.

Asked about the disparity, marketing strategy manager Hermann Trick said that "usually, there's no difference," adding that the transmission "adapts to the driver." Smart-car shoppers should be sure to give the fortwo a thorough test drive, to make sure the transmission is behaving reasonably well.

Otherwise, the fortwo drives with reasonable ease, but you might feel that you must keep both hands on the wheel, partly due to the car's quick steering. This means a need for rapid correction may occur at any instant. Overall, the fortwo has a surprisingly heavy feel for a small car.

Ride quality is definitely firm, yielding acceptable comfort on really smooth pavement; but even mild undulations may produce jitteriness. The rear-mounted engine is quiet at highway speed, but emits some vibration and noise at idla.

Excellent seats are highly supportive, yet quite comfortable. Both occupants enjoy plenty of head and leg room. Elbow space is adequate, but the door is rather close and passengers are fairly close together. Luggage space is passable, but there's not much room for suitcases of any size. Visibility can be troublesome. The rear view is narrowed considerably by tall seatbacks, while over-shoulder views are nearly nonexistent past wide quarter panels or the Cabriolet's fabric roof.

A tachometer and clock sit atop the dashboard. They aren't in the way of driver vision, but the placement looks a little tacky.

Manufacturing a smart car takes 3.5 hours, at a plant in France dubbed "smartville.".For $2,000 more than a base model, the Passion coupe includes paddle shifters, a Panorama roof, CD stereo, power windows/mirrors, and air conditioning. A Comfort Package for Passion models includes heated leather seats and a rain/light sensor.

Electronic Stability Control is standard. Premium-grade gasoline is recommended for the fortwo's three-cylinder, 70-horsepower engine.

Despite the assurances of smart/Mercedes-Benz engineers, who explain that the fortwo has scored impressively in crash-testing and other safety evaluations, some drivers are likely to feel vulnerable in the car because of its size. Others won't feel much different than in any subcompact model.

Smart includes a 2-year/24,000-mile warranty, which is modest indeed when compared to the coverage on some small cars these days. Smart cars go on sale by early January 2008.

Attention Editors: The complete 2008 smart fortwo review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at for details.

© All contents copyright 2007 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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