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Car review: 2011 Smart ForTwo

By Bill Jackson

Cars.com

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The Smart ForTwo is a car that's been left behind in the competitive compact-car segment, and it's not hard to figure out why.

The ForTwo is the only car I've driven that I can't recommend to anyone. It's not that I dislike everything about the Smart; some things are -- OK. It's just that the car comes with so many quirks, compromises and faults that the cons kill it in my book.

For a long time, two of the only reasons to buy a small car were that you couldn't afford something better or you wanted better gas mileage. In that light, the ForTwo's estimated 41 mpg on the highway and its sub-$13,000 starting price look interesting. The catch, though, is that many 2012 small cars hit 40 mpg on the highway, including the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio. True, some of those cars require you to purchase a special version to get that mileage, but the point is, 40 mpg isn't the ceiling it once was. There are also several small cars available near that $13K price.

Many competitors also have things the tiny ForTwo doesn't -- like rear seats. That means the best cards in the ForTwo's hand -- mileage and price -- have been trumped, and it doesn't boast much else to woo drivers.

Error in transmission

The first flaw is the car's transmission. I'm far from the only one to harp on the Smart's transmission, but the issues aren't just mechanical; the way it's marketed is misleading.

The transmission is an automated manual one, meaning it shifts gears as a manual transmission would: You feel the clutch disengage, the gear changes and then you feel the clutch re-engage. The nose of the car dips slightly as the clutch disengages, just as a car with a stick shift does when someone is learning to drive a manual transmission. While there's nothing wrong with this in theory, in practice the shifts take too long.

Also, the transmission is woefully inconsistent. After a week of driving the thing, I never achieved consistent acceleration and shifting. The ForTwo does seem to prefer a light touch of the gas pedal, but its shift points were all over the map. That inconsistency -- more than the slow shifting and lurching -- bothered me the most the more I drove the Smart. And by "bothered" I mean "enraged."

But, like I say, part of the problem is in the marketing: Calling this transmission "automatic" or even "automated" is misleading. It doesn't function like an automatic anything. It doesn't work best when you put it in Drive and mindlessly mash the gas pedal; it works best when you select the gears yourself via either the gearshift or the shift paddles on the steering wheel. Once I figured that out -- and committed to driving the Smart only that way -- I was much more pleased with the results. The shifts still took too long and there was still a lurch, but at least I knew when it was all going to happen.

If Smart called its gearbox a sequential manual transmission it would be more accurate: You'd get the hint that you need to drive the car, just as you would one with a manual transmission.

Bottom line: If you don't want to select gears yourself, don't buy a Smart. It's as simple as that.

Rough Ride

After establishing a transmission strategy, the flaw you can't get around in the Smart is that it rides extremely roughly. It crashes over small bumps, and expansion joints in the pavement are painful. I'm not exaggerating when I say I think I got all four wheels off the ground after hitting a bump on the highway.

Part of that is due to the shortness of the wheelbase; small cars generally, but not always, ride rougher than cars with longer wheelbases. But part of it can also be blamed on the fact that the Smart ForTwo is one stiffly sprung car.

The stiffness isn't necessarily a bad thing on smooth roads. There's little body roll, and given that the ForTwo is a relatively tall and very narrow car, any noticeable body roll would leave you feeling like you were about to tip over.

The problem, though, is that smooth roads are hard to come by, so you really get beaten up riding in a ForTwo.

It's so bad that, after riding my bicycle over a piece of road I'd driven in the ForTwo, I couldn't tell you which had the rougher ride. It might have been the one with two wheels ... but barely. I also thought I broke something on the ForTwo after hitting an imperfection in a road I regularly drive in other cars with no issue.

Ride quality can be subjective, but the ForTwo is so harsh it raises a very big red flag. You can shift your way around some of the transmission's faults, but you can't do a thing about the ride. If you're considering a ForTwo, take it down the roughest road you can find on your test drive.

Noisy interior

The Smart ForTwo is not a quiet little bubble of serenity; everything makes noise. The climate control system is noisy, particularly when the air conditioning is running. A great deal of road noise creeps into the cabin, and you could easily hear neighboring cars' radios if it weren't for the engine drowning out most everything around you.

At a time when automakers are isolating occupants from their surroundings with increasing efficiency, at least you can say Smart bucks the trend.

In the real world

It should be obvious when you consider the issues I've already mentioned, but the ForTwo is not a highway tourer. In addition to its rough ride over expansion joints, it also feels like it's being tugged into ruts in the road. Because it's so upright, it gets moved around a lot by any degree of wind.

Thanks to a very modestly powered engine (70 horsepower), you have to do a good job of anticipating gaps in traffic when passing, or even just merging. In short, the Smart ForTwo is a handful; you must be attentive at all times. It almost feels like it's fighting to get away from you, and it certainly doesn't have the power to launch you out of a tight situation.

The Smart's engine is rough at idle, so it feels like the car is jiggling in stop-and-go traffic. As you creep forward and stop, the clutch feels like it's slipping, causing a weird sort of half-acceleration. Same thing goes when you brake: Every so often, the clutch disengages and some of your engine-braking power disappears, giving you the sensation you're accelerating when you want to be stopping. It's not pleasant.

For the record, there are some things about the ForTwo that are OK. For starters, there's a relatively large cargo area in back. That was surprising given that, from the outside, I didn't think I had room for a spare thought, let alone a week's worth of groceries. I was wrong. Also, the ForTwo we tested had a transparent roof that brightened up the cabin quite a bit.

Also, for all the drivetrain's faults, it has a sweet spot from about 10 mph to 40 mph. It's still modestly powered, the transmission still takes way too long to shift and there's still the chance that hitting a pothole will launch you into orbit, but if you can find a perfect road and content yourself with just trundling along, selecting your own gears ... on a day with no wind, and perfect temperatures so you don't have to use the climate control ... you'll experience the best the Smart ForTwo has to offer.

Safety, reliability, mileage and change

The Smart ForTwo gets the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest rating, Good, in the agency's frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength crash tests. It gets the next highest rating, Acceptable, for rear crash protection.

Reliability is predicted to be worse than average.

The ForTwo gets an EPA estimated 33/41 mpg city/highway, but premium gas is recommended.

The Smart ForTwo has been sold in the U.S. since the 2008 model year, with few changes beyond an occasional special edition.

ForTwo in the market

The Smart ForTwo is not a fun car to drive. It doesn't get exceptional mileage. Its tiny size means it isn't the most practical car, even if it can handle a quick trip to the grocery store now and again. It beats you up with its rough ride, it's noisy and it's got an "automatic" transmission that really isn't.

In the end, if the rest of the small-car market were composed of gas-guzzling, poorly made slugs, the ForTwo would have a chance of being competitive. As it stands, though, most of its competitors are far from that, and the ForTwo has been eclipsed.

Snapshot

Starting MSRP $12,490 -- $17,690

EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 33
Highway: 41

Available Engines:
70-hp, 1.0-liter I-3 (premium)

Available Transmissions:
5-speed auto-shift manual w/OD and auto-manual

New or Notable
* Hardtop or convertible
* Minuscule dimensions
* Seats two
* 33 mpg city
* Stability system, four airbags

What We Like
* Unexpectedly roomy interior
* Maneuverability
* Turning circle
* Iconic styling
* Seating position
* Slick convertible-top operation

What We Don't
* High-speed stability
* Limited cargo capacity
* Rock-hard brakes
* Unrefined auto-manual transmission
* No cheaper than other small cars
* Premium gas recommended

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