Go big or go home. While 100 mm of extra width makes the entirely new 2016 smart fortwo a lot roomier inside, the company may want to wait until the long-anticipated, 5-door forfour model arrives before shouting out that classic line.
The latest fortwo gets a new look to go along with its added width, an improved interior, a better powertrain, and the list goes on. The hope is that this reinvented model captivates the Canadian eco-minded buyer as effectively as the original did a dozen years ago. After a first drive, I must admit that smart has made a convincing argument for going small.
Still small, but bigger on performance
My tester was outfitted in mid-grade passion trim, just above the base pure and below the top-line prime. No matter how you trim it out, the 2016 smart fortwo continues as Canada’s smallest street-legal car, its length being identical to its predecessor’s at 2.69 metres so it can be parked perpendicular to curbs in jurisdictions that allow such efficiency.
Efficiency in mind, the new Canadian model (7.5L/100km city and 6.1L/100km highway) isn’t quite as fuel-friendly as the old one (6.8 and 6.2, respectively), which is a bit strange because U.S. EPA numbers show a fractional improvement. Either way, owners should be happy with its smaller, yet more energetic, 898cc turbo triple-cylinder that increases output to 89 horsepower (+19) and 100 lb-ft of torque (+32).
Thanks to a sprite 900kg curb weight, the 2016 smart fortwo is plenty quick off the line, zipping away from standstill with near electric immediacy and getting up to speed much quicker than any previous smart car I’ve tested. The official 0-100km/h time is 10.4 seconds with the 5-speed manual transmission or 10.7 seconds with the 6-speed twinamic dual-clutch transmission (as tested). Top speed is set to 155 km/h, making it fast enough for Germany’s autobahns, let alone your local freeway. The old fortwo? Let’s just say you needed to be patient at takeoff.
Smoother transmission should ease critics
The twinamic is the same type of fast-reacting gearbox performance car manufacturers use to get the most out of their sportiest powertrains. This type of transmission is appreciated by enthusiasts despite its propensity for more abrupt shift intervals than regular automatics, and to this end smart has previously come under fire for an autobox with less than smooth operation.
It’s easy to see that a lot of engineering effort went into this updated dual-clutch transmission, which proves a lot smoother than before. Not velvety whipped cream smooth, but certainly miles better than the old version, while manual shift capability is still part of the package, as are Eco and Sport modes. Heck, the little 3-banger even blips on downshifts!
Ride and handling both improved
The car’s speed-sensitive, variable-ratio power steering provided reasonably good feedback, partly due to the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout that frees the steering from the mechanical pull alternatively incurred by front-wheel drive cars. RWD also contributes to the smart fortwo’s astonishingly small turning circle. It felt a bit top-heavy when pushing hard into corners and leaned accordingly, but it held its lane nonetheless, so don’t be alarmed.
Likewise, the new smart is an enjoyable highway companion, feeling comfortable and confidence-inspiring at high speeds thanks to a surprisingly smooth ride, although despite standard Crosswind Assist it can get a bit upset by strong sidelong breezes. Braking is very good; the front discs and rear drums provided nice, progressive action, while panic stops resulted in quick, controlled response.
Not without faults
Front and side visibility is excellent, although I couldn’t find a satisfying rearward view through the mirror. The smart fortwo is a prime candidate for a digital camera replacement like some other manufacturers are now installing, most notably Cadillac. I’m not talking about a parking camera, which it hardly needs due to its abbreviated size, but rather a full-time rear projector that gives a better view out the back. That parking camera is an option available with a 7” infotainment upgrade that also includes navigation.
Big on features
While the top-line prime model gets auto on/off headlamps, LED taillights, unique 15” alloys, rain-sensing wipers, leather upholstery, heated seats, a panoramic sunroof, and other premium features, my fortwo passion tester was slightly more down-to-earth with a standard list that included LED driving lights, upgraded gloss black, white or silver grille trim, mirror caps finished in the same colour as the exposed tridion safety cell (black, white or silver), a different albeit still attractive set of machine-finished 15” alloys, the option of dash top, door inserts and seat upholstery in black, grey or a very cool orange, the addition of a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, matte chrome interior door handles, a smartphone cradle that works together with smart’s Cross Connect app for iOS and select Android phones (and completely blocks some key audio controls), plus more.
Big on price
This particular car also benefited from optional heated seats, heated power side mirrors, a cargo cover, metallic paint, and the aforementioned twinamic gearbox, all of which pushed its $18,800 MSRP up to $21,215 before adding freight and dealer fees. That’s substantially more than the base model’s $17,300 entry price, and even slightly higher than the prime’s $20,900 starting point, although the latter can be optioned out with similar extras to the passion and therefore gets pricier.
The smart fortwo passion also gets much of the base model’s gear including its steering wheel switchgear with cruise control, a 3.5” colour TFT multi-information display featuring an eco score meter and fuel consumption histogram, automatic HVAC, Bluetooth audio streaming, a flat-folding front seatback, antitheft alarm, a full array of active and passive safety equipment including airbags for both occupants’ knees, etc.
Safety is the key
Safety in mind, the tridion cell makes for an extremely rigid passenger compartment, although this new model has yet to be tested by the IIHS or NHTSA. Last year’s model held up well in NHTSA crash tests, however, its side-impact results earning a best possible rating of five stars, while frontal and rollover tests were good at four stars apiece.
Of note, during the previous model’s launch program, smart used the example of short and long aluminum ladders to help us understand how something smaller could be stronger (the longer ladder twisted much more easily).The same scenario appears to play out with the fortwo’s tiny but ultra-stiff body structure extensively made of high-strength steel.
Making the most of what you’ve got
The classic split cargo door likely helps with rear crashworthiness, too, the bottom portion folding down for a tiny tailgate capable of 220 kilos (485 lbs) of what-have-you, and the upper glass allowing quick access. With both seats occupied, cargo space is limited, but you can stow a weekend’s luggage if you pack light ― 190 litres behind the front seats and 350 litres when the front passenger’s seat is folded flat. It’s nicely finished in back, as well, the tailgate getting a thick plastic backing and the rest of the area being carpeted.
Likewise, the cabin materials are a mix of hard plastics and softer surfaces. The entire dash is covered in a really nice and thick mesh fabric, while the seats and door inserts are finished in a finer woven cloth, the former with grey contrast stitching. The look is sporty, highlighted by some piano black lacquer and aluminum highlights, plus well-designed controls. Those looking for premium-level, soft synthetic surfaces on the dash and doors might be disappointed, mind you, as the fortwo doesn’t go so far to pamper.
Funky design wins over the fun at heart
I found myself more taken by the 2016 smart fortwo’s overall interior design. The dashboard is a joyful combination of protruding pods starting with the primary instruments, its main speedometer and multi-information display combo bulging upward into a large semicircle, and the tachometer/clock dial poking up out of the left-side dash top like some Star Wars droid. Four dash vents continue the circular theme, while the audio interface follows the elevated, tablet-style trend. The controls are easy to use and the stereo is quite good.
The single-zone automatic HVAC interface just below is my favourite design element, as it looks like an old-style radio. It features a unique slider that magnifies a given temperature as it slides across ― a cool retro design that also worked effectively.
Is the smart fortwo worth the money?
Actually, there’s a lot to like about the 2016 smart fortwo, and I really think it would sell in higher numbers if smart could import it for a few thousand less. After all, you can buy a very good 5-seat hatchback below $10,000 in Canada, not to mention a dozen or so deserving alternatives that also sell for less. The smart brand’s argument is a bit of premium boutique cachet in the car itself and that you purchase it and have it serviced at a Mercedes dealer, but so far these intangibles haven’t been enough to pull in big crowds. Of course, exclusivity has its own rewards.
I certainly enjoyed driving ― and loved parking ― the new smart fortwo. I also like the styling direction it’s taken to become a much more serious contender, albeit in a much more competitive small-car class.