What a dog! That was my impression based on a short but vivid drive in a dealer-provided Smart car last year. It felt slow, cramped and noisy, with horrendous brakes. It can't be that bad, I thought, but then "Consumer Reports" gave a Smart 28 out of 100 possible points, earning it a spot on its "lowest scorers" list.
I don't write reviews based on brief first impressions, so I decided the Smart needed a second chance. I now have in my driveway a $17,980 Passion Cabriolet (with $645 worth of extras, including useful power steering, plus a clock and rev counter). I also spent time this week with a Ferrari California, and they couldn't have been more different. Here's a brief video comparison:
The Ferrari was fun, and the Smart is definitely still challenged. But my opinion has been revised modestly upward. There are better choices out there for the money, but the Smart is definitely interesting.
The fatal problem is the one-liter, three-cylinder gas engine that provides 70 horsepower. It's not the lack of power that bothers me, it's the agonizing lag that simulates a malfunctioning turbocharger. Press that gas pedal and nothing much happens for a second or two. When it finally gets up to speed, highway cruising is relatively comfortable — if you can overlook the jittery ride. The car handles well, despite its ultra-upright design. It performed like a champ in the crosswinds on the ultra-long Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River.
Other things you'll have to learn to live with are two seats, a fair amount of noise, and an amazing amount of brake pedal travel before the car starts to slow down. Good things: Fit and finish that has improved significantly from early cars, reasonable accommodations for two people, and a panoramic front view.
The convertible version is really very cool, reminiscent of French cars like the Citroen 2CV. The top is like a big canvas sunroof, rolling back at the push of a button. It works very well, but flaps a bit on the highway.
Green considerations for the Smart car include the recyclable body panels, a good lifecycle back story, and let's not forget the 33 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway.
People gave me a thumb's up when they saw the cute Smart coming. "Nice car!" said a lady in an SUV. It makes people feel good. But my Honda Fit does almost as well on gas and price, and it has room for four, with amazing versatility. "Consumer Reports" loves the Fit.
Perhaps because it doesn't wear well, sales of the Smart (still very strong in Europe) have dropped precipitously in the U.S. So far this year, 1,400 have been sold. The car was introduced to North America in 2008, when it sold a whopping 25,000. Last year, sales fell 41 percent to 14,595. Smart will stick around, though, and is even making a profit for importer Roger Penske.
Probably before I considered buying a Smart I'd take a look at a similarly priced used Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla, and I'd consider buying another new Honda Fit. I just tested the latest one, and it's still a leader as far as I'm concerned. Other low-priced small cars include the Hyundai Elantra, the Kia Forte and Soul (Korean cars are much improved), and the Ford Focus. GM is coming out with the Cruze Eco, a much larger car that matches the Smart's mileage. Here's a useful rating of pocket contenders.