"We desperately need new product," a Smart executive told us several years ago. With only the Fortwo on offer for years, Daimler's one-vehicle brand met the fate of a fashion item: Once everyone that absolutely had to have one got his (or her) wish fulfilled, sales nosedived. Moreover, choosing a Smart over, say, a Fiat 500, required a serious rationale.
The two-seater Fortwo won over customers in urban markets with its tiny dimensions and modernist style—and alienated enthusiasts with a gutless engine, a bouncy suspension, and an automated manual transmission that left the Fortwo jerky with every shifting maneuver.
Read on for our first drive of the 2016 Smart Fortwo.
What is it?
While retaining its predecessor's rear-engine concept, the third generation of the Smart Fortwo is based on an entirely new platform that was co-developed with French carmaker Renault. It is a lot wider that the previous model, but it is just as short. You can't beat it in cities like New York and San Francisco, where drivers are on their own when it comes to finding a suitable parking spot.
The styling has evolved strongly, with the one-box look of the orginal model replaced by a pronounced "one-and-a-half-box" appearance. It makes the car look a lot more grown-up. Instead of the previous model's somewhat clueless smile, the Smart now looks attentive and slightly mischievous.
Down the road, the Smart lineup will fill out with a convertible, a fully electric version, and a top-of-the-line model tweaked by tuner Brabus to make around 110 horsepower. Sales of the 90-horsepower model are to begin this fall, with prices expected to hover around the $15,000 mark.
How does it drive?
Good tidings come from the powertrain department: The U.S. market will get only the top-of the-line engine, a turbocharged 0.9-liter three-cylinder with 90 horsepower and 100 lb-ft of torque. That's a lot more than the current model's 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft. Performance is vastly improved, and 0 to 60 mph now takes just over ten seconds, although the Smart remains governed below 100 mph.
The power boost truly transforms the driving experience. It can move through traffic with alacrity, and passing can be handled with ease. The awkward single-clutch automated manual is gone; drivers now get the choice of a 5-speed manual gearbox or a Getrag-supplied 6-speed dual-clutch transmission. The wider track means a lot more stability, and there is a modicum of comfort to handle even longer trips. Steering has become more direct, and the biggest surprise is the ultra-small turning circle. The Smart can almost turn on the spot.
What's it like inside?
If you prefer authenticity over conventional notions of luxury, you will like the Smart. Authenticity, here, means that Smart doesn't even try to hide the fact that it is largely made of plastic. The ovoid shapes and funky color combinations resemble a modern lounge or a club; there is no visual connection to other vehicles made by Daimler. With a cutting-edge infotainment system and apps that connect the car with your iPhone or Android, Smart is ahead of other vehicles in its price range, and way beyond.
Clearing out the left lane at 90-mph plus; later, checking out the app on your phone that knows exactly what you did.
We don't care for the boring and conventional three-spoke steering wheel. Smart doesn't need to follow obsolete notions of sportiness.
The ideal setup:
Since this is a city car, the dual-clutch box works perfectly, but we like the manual for its coolness factor. Either transmission is good. Get the full infotainment and connectivity system. And pick a nice contrast color scheme instead of our test car's white-on-white.
By the numbers: 2016 Smart Fortwo
MSRP: Not yet available
Power / drive wheels: 0.9-liter, 90-hp turbocharged three-cylinder engine / rear-wheel drive
Transmission: 5-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch transmission
EPA fuel economy: N/A
In showrooms: Now, in Europe