Micro mover
We drive smart’s year 2008 fortwo in silicon valley

You know trouble’s brewing when the San Jose Mercury front page thunders “$4 a gallon?” using gigantic letters of a size usually reserved for news like “Pearl Harbour attacked”.

Soaring fuel prices have the potential to herald a return to the boom days of the 1970s Fuel Crisis when compact cars ousted supersized sedans. It seemed the perfect time for smart to launch its secondgeneration fortwo into the USA, the home of the gas-guzzler.

Even in Silicon Valley, what seems to be a particularly heavy concentration of hybrids doesn’t stop locals driving SUVs solo on the ridiculously crowded roads where, despite its minuscule size, the smart sticks out. Passersby rubbernecked, gave us the thumbs-up, mouthed “electric?” and “how much?”.

Surrounded by the behemoths that pose for ordinary everyday transport on American roads, from the outside the smart looks, well tiny. Slip into the seat, and your perspective changes radically.

It’s surprisingly spacious and doesn’t feel at all dimensionally challenged. An interior lined with the sort of quality finishes we’ve come to expect from parent company Mercedes-Benz improves the feel-good factor, and coup models get a polycarbonate panoramic see through roof.

Given that we were at sea level, our smart performed much as expected. Its smoothly thrumming Triple comfortably whisked us to well over the national speed limit. Top speed on this microcar is 145 km/h, which it reaches with minimal huff and puff. Quoted economy is around 7 litres/100 km in town.

The pedal-less gearshift was a bone of contention, though. According to smart, they’ve put lots of work into smoothing out shifts and optimising ratios. Well, it’s jerky enough to need some acclimatisation, particularly between First and Second. To be fair, we discovered a possible culprit as the launch unfolded: US-spec models have a short fi rst gear for better pullaway. US cars also have a tall top gear – which could account for the leisurely highway performance. Incidentally, you can shift in full auto mode or sequentially using either the normal console-mounted lever or paddles on the steering column. Like a normal autobox with torque converter, it will “creep” in low gear; on steep slopes a hill-hold system keeps it from rolling back.

When we ducked away from the 5-lane expressways into heavily forested terrain with plenty of dips and climbs, the smart impressed with its secure tracking and ability to maintain a decent pace. Long, sweeping curves at speed can unsettle it, though: we regularly needed to make minor steering corrections. Overall, not a bad result given the short wheelbase and rear-biased powertrain – but a little more positive steering feel would be nice.

The original fortwo sold three-quarters of a million in the 9 years of its existence; in that time it acquired – and then lost – bigger, sportier stablemates. So far, smart USA’s experience suggests that a nation notorious for its love affair with large vehicles could be embracing a whole new paradigm. In fact, before the launch, smart embarked on a six-month roadshow that attracted thousands of visitors and reportedly had them queueing up to drive the microcar in dozens of cities across the nation. More than 30 000 put down a $99 (about R650) deposit on a fortwo.

At only 2,7 metres long, the smart is a parking champ, but there are two obvious question marks: safety and space. Taking the second first, the boot is tiny but looks like it might take a golf bag, and outdoor types will be pleased to know that an optional 2-bike carrier bolts on to the rear subframe.

As for safety, being two-door, the smart can’t qualify for a full 5-star Euro NCAP crash test rating, but nevertheless manages 4. Inherent in the design are safety features such as the rear-mounted engine that is driven underfloor by impact, but the central part of the car’s safety system is its unique, rigid “Tridion” protective cocoon. In a collision, the tridion concept is actually designed to activate the other vehicle’s crumple zones and distribute impact energy. Ironically, it’s the smart’s very compactness that helps it in side impacts: thanks to its short wheelbase, at least one of the two axles is likely to be hit in a side-on blow, thereby absorbing some of the impact force. Two full-size dual-stage airbags, belt tensioners and belt force limiters are standard. Driver aids range include stability control and ABS.

SA prices: smart fortwo coup pure 52 kW, R130 000; coup pulse 62 kW, R140 000; cabrio passion 62 kW R156 000.
- Anthony Doman.

Smart specs
Engine ………………..3-in-line, 1 000 cm3
Output ……………………………..52/62 kW
Transmission ……5-speed, automated
Suspension …..Front lower wishbone, McPherson strut, anti-roll bar; Rear De Dion axle, coil springs
Wheels, tyres
Rear: ……………………….. 175/55 R15;
Front: ………………………… 155/60 R15
Steering …………………. rack and pinion
Dimensions ……..2,7 m L x 1,56 m W x 1,54 m H
Max speed ………………………. 145 km/h
Acceleration 0-100 km/h ……..12,8 sec
Fuel consumption ….7,05 litres/100 km (city); 6,26 litres/100 km (highway)