Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Smart ForTwo

Any attempt to place the Smart ForTwo within a competitive segment is usually based on its small footprint and sub-$20K starting price. Rivals might thus include the Honda Fit, or the Mini Cooper, or the Nissan Micra. All wrong, I'm afraid.

An automatic-equipped and fully loaded “Prime” will crack the $22K mark and keep going. For that kind of money you could buy two Micras and wear them as shoes.

The ForTwo's real market segment includes the Ferrari 488 and the Mazda MX-5 and the Cayman GT4 and the Ariel Atom. Granted, the Smart isn't anywhere near as fast as any of those, even the Mazda, but there is a commonality. All these cars seat two people and come with compromises, be they ground-clearance, cost, or reduced luggage space. They aren't cars you buy with your head, they're cars you buy with your heart.

Logic, I'm afraid, has little to do with it. Examine the Smart ForTwo's characteristics in the cold light of day, and one thing stands out immediately: the footprint may be small but the price tag is not. A stick-shift “Pure” basic edition starts from $17,300 plus freight and delivery, while an automatic-equipped and fully loaded “Prime” will crack the $22K mark and keep going. For that kind of money you could buy two Micras and wear them as shoes.

Official fuel economy figures aren't yet out, but with its stubby building-block profile, don't expect the Smart to be ultra-efficient on the highway. Power is up this year and so is weight, and while Mercedes-Benz claims economy shouldn't be much worse, there are better offerings if you wish to save at the pump. Not to mention that fuel prices are low, and unlikely to spike in the near future (Canadian truck sales are through the roof).

It's an unforgiving environment for this little pollywog to hatch into, but there is a certain lovability to the new Smart. It looks like one of those nearly spherical overfed pug dogs, all square-stance and smushed-in face. See two or three of them parked together, and your mind starts running to the shoe-rack at a toddler's play centre.

A 15-inch steel wheel is standard on the base car, which also comes with LED running lights standard. Compared to the previous-generation Smart, there's more standard features (cruise control, trip computer, Mercedes-Benz’s automatic crosswind countersteering system), a multi-function steering wheel, a 10-cm wider girth, and 10 L more cargo space. It's also considerably more expensive than the old model which, admittedly, didn't even have power steering.

Also on autoTRADER: Test Drive: 2015 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive

Inside, the ForTwo continues the Smart tradition of maximum funkiness in minimal space. Everything's a repetition of ovoid shapes, from semi-magnifying glass over top of the temperature slider to the infotainment surround. There are very few soft touchpoints (none for your elbows, for instance), though the fabric covering for the dash looks pretty neat.

Infotainment in the ForTwo is relatively good: familiar and easy to use. That's because it's my phone. A universal smart-phone cradle is an inexpensive optional extra on everything including the base model, and it makes a great deal of sense. Smart packages their car with an app called CrossConnect that promises better integration, but at this stage the app seems buggy for navigation – others had difficulty getting music to play. Using your phone as you normally would is much easier.

A seven-inch multi-function display is also available as an optional extra. Considering that you're likely to upgrade your phone more often than your car, and that the cradle is inexpensive, you might give this one a miss, but know that it looks pretty good and seems to operate without issue.

Passenger space in the ForTwo is again excellent considering the footprint, with plenty of headroom for drivers hovering around the six-foot range. Trunk space is large enough to handle carry-on suitcases for airport drop-off, or you can fold the passenger seat and try to Tetris larger packages in there. The glovebox is a mailslot, but there's a handy little dashboard shelf for loose items, and a sliding drawer in the centre console to hold other valuables.

Refreshed, restyled, but really nothing wildly different from the previous generation Smart ForTwo in terms of concept. However, where the powertrain is involved, there's a significant update.

Now equipped with a remarkably compact 900cc three-cylinder turbocharged engine powering the rear wheels, the new ForTwo has considerably more fortissimo. Power is up to 89 hp at 5,500 rpm, and a stout 100 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm. Compare this last especially with the old car's 60 lb-ft couldn't-open-a-stuck-pickle-jar, and that's plenty more scoot.

Add in an available five-speed manual and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and things start looking pretty good. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the previous Smart offered the single worst transmission available on a modern production car, so even more than the power bump, the more conventional dual-clutch auto or stick-shift are welcome additions.

Portland is a so-called 'Smart' city, filled with cycling co-ops and other environmental initiatives. It is also wonderfully, gloriously, occasionally-appallingly weird. While there's a huge homeless population, it's also hard to tell just how many are living on the street because pretty much everybody dresses like a panhandler anyway. The doormen at the hotel both had beards like American civil war generals. Being ironically tattooed is a municipal bylaw. You can eat at a fine restaurant or out of a foodtruck, and it'll cost about the same. There's a guy who dresses up like Darth Vader in a kilt, and rides around on a unicycle playing the bagpipes, which shoot fire.

All this oddity lends itself to lampooning, as in the Portlandia TV series, and it also serves as a perfect backdrop for the new ForTwo. Traffic is pretty bad in Portland, so the ForTwo's tiny footprint makes carving up the downtown's confusing network of one-way streets pretty easy. That turbocharged torque comes on in a rush after an initial lull, and while the 0-100 km/h time is something above 10 seconds, the ForTwo now feels much scootier than before. The dual-clutch transmission is a bit grabby off the line, but shifts quickly and directly on the move.

Mercedes-Benz put together a scavenger hunt of sorts, with GPS check-ins all over the city from downtown to airport, parks in the Southeast to a tavern on Skyline Ridge in the Northwest. This involves much zipping around, parking semi-illegally, pulling U-turns every five minutes, and generally acting like we're driving through a pinball machine populated by hipsters.

It is an environment where the Smart excels. As it's so short, slotting into traffic is very easy, and parking ridiculously so. General maneuverability is excellent, and the 6.95 m turning circle is unmatched by any other vehicle. It basically feels like driving an escaped bumper car.

Get it up on the curving, forested roads above the city, and the ForTwo's even ForFun. It's quicker than you expect, and the very short wheelbase gives it a lively feel. This is slow-car-fast kind of fun, with your foot on the floor and the turbo-three roaring away behind you like half a GT-R. Neat.

Further, get the Smart out on the highway, and it's actually quite composed. We drove the ForTwo on the same route used for the launch of the E-class and Dodge Challenger, and while it was really quite noisy on the road, the Smart was also completely unaffected by bucketing rainstorms or heavy traffic. Mercedes will point out their littlest car's tough endoskeletal structure as a safety feature, but really, it's so composed at speed you just feel safe.

So, if your life consists of competing in urban scavenger hunts, then this is the car for you. If, however, you're a normal car consumer, then the price tag and the ho-hum efficiency don't make this machine a smart choice. In Europe, where parking is a giant pain and urban centres were never designed to accept cars in the first place, the ForTwo makes perfect sense, particularly when fitted with one of the efficient turbodiesels.

Here, though, it's something of a space oddity: a premium little city runabout that'd make for a fun second car for someone who favours either its cuteness or its whirly-twirly urban nimbleness over cargo-hauling practicality. It's fun. It's cute. It's weird. It's not very sensible. It's a Smart.