Third Place: 2013 Smart Fortwo

Not long into our comparison test—or technically, before it even started—it became quite evident that this was a two-horse race. And the two-seat Smart wasn’t in it. But this is not going to be a Fortwo bash-fest.

2013 Smart Fortwo
2013 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

I have a soft spot in my heart for this rear-engine, rear-drive roller skate. And having recently spent a week in Paris with my family, I’ve seen the Smart in its natural (read: correct) environment. Smarts are everywhere in Paris, and if you’ve ever seen how the locals park—nose to tail on the side streets with mere centimetres between bumpers—the Smart looks incredibly smart indeed.

Not so much over here in North America, though, where this inner-city conveyance becomes an automotive novelty act ill-suited to just about every driving requirement. Except parallel parking. And looking cute.

The key to Smart ownership is the need to wipe clean any and all preconceived notions of what a car should be and drive it on its own terms. You must accept the halting five-speed automated single-clutch transmission, its snail-like pace, its general reluctance to turn, and its susceptibility to lateral atmospheric forces, be they crosswinds, passing trucks, or low flying geese. A Smart Fortwo is no picnic on the highway.

2013 Smart Fortwo
2013 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

This is the point in the review where Smart owners jump to their computers in defense their beloved microcars. And I get it. Fortwos get under your skin. But this is a comparison test, so compare we must.

In the Smart’s favour are its quality build, meaty steering feel, Euro-chic styling inside and out, good seats and a surprisingly spacious cabin with excellent forward vision. Dynamically, however, it’s in a different world from the Spark and iQ, which drive pretty much like ‘normal’ cars. Keeping up with these two on our urban and highway test loop proved challenging at times.

With its very short wheelbase you won’t be surprised to hear the Smart’s ride is choppy and can get quite pitchy on some surfaces. Additionally, the tall and tippy Smart is engineered to understeer—a lot. Once past the weird off-centre resistance in the steering, those skinny front tires don’t offer much grip so high-ish corner speeds and (heaven-forbid) oversteer are off the menu. Dive into a bend with any gusto and the Fortwo pushes like Uncle Ned at a Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet.

2013 Smart Fortwo
2013 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

The $20,900 Brabus edition with its sportier suspension and bigger tires handles much better.

And on to the transmission. The trick to mitigating some of the glacial hesitation between upshifts and the tranny’s tendency to short shift (which actually gives the impression of negative acceleration) is to use the paddle shifters, feather the throttle and keep the revs up. The naturally aspirated 70-hp 998 cc three-cylinder makes a cool little snarl when up on the cam, and using the paddles is actually kinda fun. You’ll feel like Schumacher — not Michael or Ralph, but Gunther, their secret, untalented half-brother.

The quirky charm of the Smart continues in the cabin with its Saab-like ignition between the seats and the two froggy-eye dash-top gauge-pods. This tester had the optional $900 Innovation Package that adds heated seats and a small multimedia touchscreen. Behind the seats is a bit of storage space, enough for a couple of overnight bags or a grocery run, accessible by the flip-up rear window and flip-down tailgate.

The biggest problem with the Smart Fortwo is that in the real world it doesn’t deliver the kind of fuel economy you’d expect from a tiny three-cylinder car that can barely get out of its own way. Although it was the best in this group at 6.2 L/100 km, the fact that it requires premium fuel does it no favours.

The smartest Smart is the upcoming 2013 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive which arrives in Canada in the spring. It is swift, silent, and smooth, and being an EV will stay where it belongs—in urban areas. –PB

Pricing: 2013 Smart Fortwo Passion
Base price: $17,500
Options: $900 (Innovation Package)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,295 (suggested)
Price as tested: $19,975

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