Car review: 2011 Smart ForTwo

By Ian Merritt/Cars.com

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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