- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

The smart car has finally arrived on our shores after what seems like an eternity since its inception. More than 770,000 first generation (1998-2006) smart cars have been sold in 36 countries globally. Smart is a member of Mercedes-Benz Cars. The U.S. represents the 37th country, and the U.S. version is designed specifically for two people, and will be called smart fortwo. The diminutive vehicle is made in France and is truly of Lilliputian proportions. It is only 8.8 feet long, 5.1 feet high, with an equal measurement in width. It tips the scales at 1,852 pounds in the heaviest model.

Smart fortwo comes in two levels of trim: Pure; and Passion. Both trims are available in two configurations: Coupe and Cabriolet. The latter features a two position soft top that recedes and returns electrically at virtually any speed. Base price for the Pure Coupe will be $11,590, while the Passion begins at $13,590. A Passion Cabriolet will retail for a base sticker of $16,590. Adding every available option to the Passion Cabriolet will bump the final tab to $18,500, excluding destination charges, tax, title and license.

Though I generally refrain from describing any vehicle as “cute” — the smart fortwo is just that. Some have referred to it as a “clown car”, suggesting wearing large red bulb noses when inside. It displays a futuristic yet playful design, and despite its reduced dimensions, is really big on interior space and comfort and features. It is proof that good things really do come in small packages. The first impression registers as sporty but stylish. The innovative two-material construction concept consists of a tridion safety-cell crafted from high-strength steel and colorful, interchangeable body panels made of premium, dent resistant plastic. Projection headlamps with indicators incorporated into them adds to the little car’s “Jetson-like” look. The front, which appears as if it might house the engine, does not. Nor does it provide trunk space. Storage for one’s personal “stuff” is behind the seats.

All rear-wheel drive smart fortwo models are powered by a 1.0-liter, transversely-rear-mounted motor that connects to a five-speed automated manual transmission ahead of the engine, complete with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The motor generates 70 horsepower and 68 pounds-feet of torque, and is capable of scooting the car to an electronically limited top speed of 90 mph, or from 0-60 mph in 12.8 seconds. It’s not a dragster folks. Smart fortwo rides on 9-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels, staggered in with and tire size.

I drove both configurations - Coupe and Cabriolet, but only in Passion trim during a recent U.S. Press introduction. The tested smart fortwo vehicles ranged in price from $13,590 to $18,500. My Passion Cabriolet sported a Red and Silver exterior finish, while the Passion Coupe was done in Blue metallic and Silver.

Roger Penske, who will lead the smart USA team is chairman of smart USA and the Penske Automotive Group which will handle the exclusive distribution system. Smart fortwo will not be advertised on TV or in the print media - only on the internet (www.smartusa.com). The cars will go on sale in January 2008, but may be ordered now with a unique $99 Reservation Program available to all interested parties. Brokers and dealers are excluded from the program, which is strictly consumer oriented. Equipment, color and model designation may be specified following receipt of the $99 deposit. Thus far, more than 30,000 orders have been placed, and will be filled on a timed priority basis. Orders will be confirmed at a later date, with the opportunity to make changes or cancel, in which case, the deposit will be refunded.

The smart fortwo has a lot of things going for it — it is visually appealing, economical, fun to drive, and it fits easily into minimal parking spaces (two will fit into a conventional parking space). Acceleration is not blistering, and the automated manual transmission takes some getting used to — it similar to BMW’s SMG gearbox, which I’m not a fan of, due to the lag time between gear changes. I would much prefer a dual clutch type shiftable automatic, but we’re not talking about a performance vehicle here anyway. At maximum freeway speed, crosswinds can present cause for concern due to the car’s squared profile and short wheelbase.

The interior space and amenities are surprisingly plentiful and user friendly, and the ride quality is compliant enough, but potholes should be avoided if possible. The handling characteristics are responsive and positive. Parking, though requiring less space as mentioned earlier, requires closer attention, because the exterior planes are difficult to judge, lacking outward reference points.

Bottom line, smart fortwo delivers on fun, practicality, fun, economy and fun.

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