2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet

Of all the vehicles I have driven no other car has been so eagerly anticipated by my children as the 2008 smart. My preschool aged daughter in particular, has been hounding me to secure a test drive. What was it about this oddly crafted and curious looking vehicle had her so entranced?

To begin with, normality does not apply to most things in driving the smart. I found myself instinctively walking from the rear of the car towards the front in order to open the door. On most cars the front door handle is at least a step and a half forward of the trunk. On the smart, the front door handle is about half a step from the back of the car.

Smart Fortwo Cabriolet

Once inside, eclectic is the order of the day with the optional tachometer and clock stuck atop the middle of the dashboard with pivots that allow adjustment towards either the driver or passenger. The main instrument cluster is similar to other vehicles but has a fairly upscale look.

At 6 ft 1 inch, the cabin was surprisingly accommodating. Head and leg-room were more than adequate and significantly more than you’ll find in most other sub-compacts that are larger on the outside. There is no feeling of claustrophobia in the smart fortwo.

The first generation smart was fitted with a 40hp turbo diesel 3 cylinder engine mated to a 6-speed transmission. The all new 2008 model does away with the oil burner and is now powered by a 70 horsepower, 3 cylinder (1 litre) gasoline engine, mated to a 5 speed transmission.

Starting the car is another idiosyncrasy, albeit a nifty one. The ignition switch is located on the floor mounted console between the seats; Saab owners will feel right at home here. Fire up the ignition and slip the automatic transmission into drive and you’re on your way.

However, as the transmission up-shifts, there is a slight pause before you lurch forward as the vehicle finds the next gear. This rocking chair sensation is the result of a whole different way of transmitting power to the wheels than you’re probably used to. It is not an automatic transmission in the typical sense, as there is no torque converter, Instead, it is an automatically shifted manual transmission.

Did you get that? There is a mechanism in the gear box that does the shifting and clutch work for you. Drivers can also choose to manually control the shifts points with steering mounted shifters as well as using the console mounted shifter. The steering mounted paddle shifters don’t necessarily speed up the shift process but do allow you to control the up shifts thereby avoiding the sweaty palms caused when the auto-box decides it wants to up shift while you are trying to cross 3 lanes of traffic. Why no manual transmission? I didn’t ask and no one ever volunteered the answer.

Once you learn to look at life through the windshield of the smart, it is actually a bit of a blast! The car turns on a dime and you find yourself looking for the most unusual parking spots to leave it in, just because you can.

The short wheelbase (something of an understatement as it fits both lengthwise and widthwise on a regular queen sized bed) provides for a reasonably choppy ride. This has nothing to do with the otherwise advanced suspension tuning from the folks at Mercedes, but rather there’s no substitute for length at least when it comes to the distance between the wheels. The shorter your wheelbase, the pitchier the ride becomes.

Perhaps the strangest driving impression of the smart was the loss of the sensation of speed. Note I am not saying there was a lack of speed, just the lack of the sensation of it. I found myself often exceeding the speed limit and not by just a kilometre or 2. It was quite surprising how easily you could run by 100 kms/hr and not even know it. On the highway, typical speeds were easily attained and maintained. The look on people’s faces when the diminutive smart blew by was a bit amusing, which feeds into the most overwhelming impression of the smart—it is an attention-getter!

Attention is a strange thing, many seek it, some shy away from it and others like me just deal with it. I was particularly amazed at the amount of attention that the smart gets while out and about. It is clearly obvious when you get that approving glance of “nice car”. Just as obvious, when the attention takes more of the characteristics of gawking at a train wreck. As well, I think the shock of seeing someone over 6 feet tall in something as small as the smart may have been the motivating factor in some of those stares.

Lets be honest here, the 800 pound gorilla in the room has to be the smart’s perceived lack of safety. However, this is clearly a misconception. From all accounts, after analyzing test results for impact damage, the smart fared just as well as other vehicles that were significantly larger. This is all due to the Tridon space frame that envelopes the passenger compartment. Add to that, standard front driver and passenger airbags, side mounted thorax and head air bags, anti-lock brakes, skid control and stability control; it’s a pretty full roster of safety features.

The weight sensing seats with seatbelt detection, always correctly switched off the passenger airbags when my 5 year daughter was in the vehicle with her booster seat and activated them when my 8 year old son was riding along.

After all that, I have to admit that my first time out on the highway was a bit tentative. However, the vehicle really acquits itself nicely and is quite civilized on the open road.

Our tester was a cabriolet model and this led to one of the funniest moments I have had in recent years. As the roof doesn’t really retract, it functions more like a sunroof with only a canvass cover over top and a separate panel behind rolling open. Unlike other convertibles, there is no interlock safety feature to prevent the roof from opening with the key inserted or without the parking brake on. There is even a button on the remote key fob to remotely open the roof. My wife inadvertently pressed this button thinking it was to unlock the doors; the light showers falling at the time resulted in moments worthy of a video reality television show.

After one week in the smart, doing mostly city driving within 10 kilometres of home, we measured fuel economy at just over 6 litres per 100 kilometres. Fans of the earlier diesel model will have to wait until much later into the model cycle as recertification of a new diesel engine is expected by 2009-2010. The increased fuel economy of the smart was welcomed as fuel priced surged to heights not seen since the post Hurricane Katrina gouging. As most fuel efficient non-hybrid car in Canada, according to Transport Canada ratings, the 2008 smart remains eligible for the current $2000 eco-rebate offered by the Government of Canada.

At a base price of $14,990 the smart pure coupe is the most affordable of the smart lineup. The passion coupe is next and includes such options as air-conditioning, panoramic roof with sunscreen, heated seats, power mirrors, alloy rims and a 6-cd mp3 ready audio system with 5 speakers, all for $18,250. Power steering is an included option in the passion coupe and not available on the pure coupe.

The cabriolet adds a cloth folding sunroof to the package and prices out at $21,250.

Value? That all depends on how you look at things. For pure utility it’s hard to justify the cost of a smart over a cornucopia of subcompacts that provide more passenger capacity and storage space at a similar or lower MSRP. However, the smart provides German engineering and assembly, incorporating advanced safety technologies not found on most cars in the sub-compact category. For the buyer looking for an unique vehicle, this vehicle provides enough of a funky statement to more than justify its price tag.