Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge
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2008 Smart Fortwo, by Greg Wilson

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2008 Smart Fortwo by Norm Mort

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2008 Smart Fortwo

North Vancouver, British Columbia – If you love the idea of a cute, economical two-seater convertible urban car that looks like nothing else on the road and has the cachet of being sold at Mercedes-Benz dealerships, you will probably see a lot of value in the new Smart Fortwo Cabriolet with a starting price of $21,250. But if you’re looking for a practical, inexpensive small car, the Fortwo Cab is probably not what you’re looking for.

For 2008, the redesigned (yes, really) Smart Fortwo Cabriolet is available only in the top-of-the-line Passion trim level, starting at $21,250, a reduction of $1,400 over the previous-generation Fortwo Cabriolet Passion model. However, the new Cabriolet is no longer offered in the base Pure or the now-discontinued mid-level Pulse trim levels, which were considerably less expensive. And when you add the current $1,795 Freight charge, the total price of a 2008 Fortwo Cabriolet Passion comes to over $23,000, without options. Whew!

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

Well, not quite. You can also apply for the federal government’s $2,000 Eco-auto rebate, which will be mailed to you sometime later in the year, bringing the total price down to around $21,000. And if you’re a recent college graduate, you can get another $500 off the purchase price. That still leaves a total price of over $20,000 for a two-seater car with a small trunk and comparably poor performance.

Whether or not this seems expensive to you will depend on how you look at this diminutive runabout. Like a Mazda Miata or a BMW Z4, the Fortwo Cabriolet is not a practical car, and you can’t justify its price when comparing it to other cars, even factoring in the money you’ll save in gas. The Fortwo Cabriolet is an emotional purchase, not a practical one.

That may not be true for the base Smart Fortwo Coupe Pure which starts at $14,990, but that’s another car review.

Changes for 2008

At a glance, it’s difficult to see the differences between the 2008 Fortwo Cabriolet and the 2006 model (it was on hiatus in 2007). But in fact, the new model is 195 mm (7.6 in.) longer, 44 mm (1.7 in.) wider, 7 mm (0.3 in.) lower, and its wheelbase is 55 mm (2.1 in.) longer. Styling changes are subtle: new projector beam headlights and headlight design, new grille, a new air intake on the left side of the rear fender, and new dual taillights replacing triple-stacked lights. Base “Pure” (coupe) models have a black Tridion safety cell and uplevel “Passion” models have a choice of black or silver safety cells. The changeable body panels are available in six colours: black, yellow and white are standard, while blue metallic, red metallic and silver metallic are optional ($430).

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

Inside, a new instrument panel features a new speedometer, a larger radio with a bigger display screen, and reorganized heating and radio controls. You can still get the trendy dash mounted optional tachometer and clock ($160). Available interior colours include grey for the Pure model, and black, red and beige for the Passion model. Leather seats and special exterior and interior colours are available in the Limited portfolio.

The biggest change for 2008 is a new 70-hp 999-cc three-cylinder gasoline engine which replaces the former 40-hp 800-cc three-cylinder diesel engine. As well, the former six-speed clutchless manual transmission and optional six-speed automatic manual transmission have been replaced with a new five-speed automated manual gearbox with a manual shift mode including shift paddles on Passion models.

The Fortwo’s new 1.0-litre gas engine offers excellent city/highway fuel economy ratings of 5.9/4.8 L/100 km (48/59 m.p.g.), though still not as thrifty as the former diesel which had city/hwy ratings of 4.6/3.8 L/100 km (61/74 mpg). The bigger engine, however, offers much better performance for a relatively small increase in fuel consumption. And in North America at least, buyers generally prefer the greater availability of gasoline over diesel fuel. Still, it’s too bad the Fortwo requires Premium gas.

Pricing

For its MSRP of $21,250, the Fortwo Cabriolet Passion includes all of the following: a black or silver-coloured Tridion safety cell and removeable plastic body panels, a power sliding convertible fabric top, removeable roof rails, and a new heated glass rear window. Standard is the 70-hp three-cylinder 1-litre engine, five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode activated by paddles behind the steering wheel, electronic stability control, hill start assist, anti-lock brakes, brake assist, and electric power steering, Tires are 155/60R15 in front and wider 175/55R15s at the rear mounted on attractive nine-spoke alloy wheels.

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

Inside, is a spacious two-passenger cabin with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, attractive fabric seats with seat heaters, power windows, air conditioning with climate control, AM/FM/six-disc CD changer with auxiliary input jack for external audio player, two tweeters, two mid-range speakers and subwoofer; power heated mirrors, remote power locks, flat folding passenger seatback, front and side airbags, seat detection system for deactivating passenger airbag, intermittent rear wiper and washer, and a tire repair kit – there is no spare tire.

Available options include leather seats ($750), metallic paint ($430), alarm ($210), fog lamps ($145), and dashtop tachometer and clock ($160).

Interior impressions

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

Let’s start with the convertible top: the folding cloth top is power operated by a button on the floor in front of the shift lever. Press it once and the top slides back to the rear roll bar, creating a big sunroof opening; press the button again, and the top slides over the bar and halfway down the back of the car. If you desire, the side roof rails can be removed easily and stored in a custom-fit cavity in the inside of the trunk lid.

The inside of the convertible top has an attractive white inner liner which brightens up the interior, helps keep out traffic noise, and keeps in heat in the winter time and cool air in the summer time.

I liked the fact that the fabric top can be opened as little or as far back as you want while on the move, and when fully open, is larger than most sunroof openings. Retracting it all the way back and removing the side roof rails creates an open-air experience akin to a full convertible. The driver’s rear vision through the rearview mirror is restricted when the top is in its fully retracted position, but it is possible to see cars behind you in the rearview mirror.

Despite the Fortwo’s small size, the cabin is spacious enough for two adults over six feet tall. The door openings are huge, and the seats are fairly high, making it easy to get in and out. One complaint: the doors don’t swing out as wide as you might expect.

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

The standard fabric bucket seats have an attractive grey pattern on black design but they are not height adjustable. Neither is the steering column tilt or telescopically adjustable. Still, I found the view of the instruments and view of the road ahead quite satisfactory for my average height.

The interior of my test car was black with a grey speckled upper and lower dash, and silver trim on the door handles, dash, steering wheel and around the shift lever. The Passion Cab is also available with a two-tone red and black interior, or a beige and black interior – I’ve seen all three and prefer the beige/black two-tone cabin.

The newly designed radio and heater controls are much better than in the previous model. The radio in particular has bigger buttons and a larger display screen, while the heater/air conditioner controls are easier to see and operate. Still, I found the markings on the fan-speed slider and temperature slider difficult to read.

Ahead of the driver, a large, more clearly marked speedometer is easier to read, while the LCD horizontal fuel gauge and outside temperature gauge are less so. The optional tachometer and clock on top of dash do look cool and can be read at a glance. Buttons for the two-step seat heaters, door locks, hazard lights, and tire pressure monitor reset are below the radio, and there’s a 12-volt outlet hiding under the dash. As well, an auxiliary outlet for music players is located inside the glovebox.

Most of the available storage in the Fortwo is behind the seats in the trunk area, but there is also a small glovebox, two open bins on either side of the steering column, storage pockets in the doors, and two cupholders – one with a removeable, washable insert.

At the rear, a small tailgate drops down to reveal a carpeted trunk, and the rear of the convertible top lifts up to provide easier access when loading. A sliding cargo cover provides privacy for the trunk, and when not in use, it can be removed and stored in a purpose-designed cavity behind the seats. Inside the tailgate is a storage area for the roof rails, but it can also be used for other items when the roof rails are in place.

The engine is located under the trunk floor, and there is no spare tire, just a can of tire sealant.

Driving impressions

As I mentioned, the doors are big with large pull-type door handles, and with its high roof and low floor, the Fortwo is easy to get in and out of. The seating position is high and the sporty seats are firm but comfortable. Though the driver’s seat is not height adjustable and the steering wheel isn’t adjustable, I found the driving position quite comfortable. There is plenty of footroom for driver and passenger, and the driver has a nice big footrest to the left of the brake pedal.

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

The ignition keyhole is on the floor behind the shift lever. While unusual, this location does keep the keys from dangling over your right leg when driving. After turning the key, there’s a slight pause before the rear-mounted engine cranks over and the engine fires up. When idling, the gas engine is not as noisy as the previous diesel engine was, but it is not quiet either.

A new five-speed automated manual transmission can be left in automatic mode or manual mode and shifted sequentially using the floor shifter (pull back to shift down, push forwards to shift up); or the paddles behind the steering wheel (left paddle shifts down and right paddle shifts up). To remind you when to shift economically, an arrow pointing up appears in the instrument cluster when it’s time to shift up a gear, and an arrow pointing down illuminates when downshifts are recommended.

In automatic mode or manual mode, there is a slight pause between shifts which has the effect of slowing the car down briefly causing a forward tipping motion akin to mild braking. This is particularly noticeable in automatic mode.

As well, when stopped at a traffic light, the car tends to creep forwards unless you put your foot firmly on the brake pedal, or engage the hand brake. One handy feature is the Fortwo’s Hill Start Assist system which prevents the car from rolling back when the brake pedal is released on a hill. The brake is released as soon as the driver accelerates.

The new 1-litre gas engine offers improved acceleration when compared to the diesel, but its 0 to 100 km/h time of 13.3 seconds is still slow when compared to other small cars on the market. Still, in stoplight to stoplight city driving, the Fortwo offers sufficient acceleration to merge in with traffic and beat the bus to the corner. With its engine over the rear wheels, I would expect winter traction to be very good.

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

The Fortwo is capable of cruising on the freeway at 120 km/h – its top speed is 145 km/h – but the ride is choppy, the steering is a bit darty, and side winds can blow it around. Engine speed at 100 km/h in fifth gear is 2,900 r.p.m. and the engine isn’t particularly noisy at that speed. However, traffic noise is more noticeable in the Cabriolet than it is in the Coupe.

By the way, the new gas engine now meets Ultra Low Vehicle Emissions (ULEV) standards and offers very low CO2 emissions of 130 g/km.

When it comes to handling, the tall, narrow Fortwo does feel a bit tippy when exiting the freeway on a decreasing radius curve, but in everyday city driving, it’s a nimble handler. To improve handling, the Fortwo’s rear tires are wider than the front ones: my test car had Continental Conti-Pro Contact 155/60R-15-inch all-season radials in front and 175/55R-15-inch all-seasons at the rear. As well, all Fortwos come with standard electronic stability control which automatically counters understeer or oversteer – a useful feature on a car with a short wheelbase.

On smooth roads, the Fortwo’s ride is comfortable, but on undulating surfaces, it can be choppy with a noticeable for-aft lurching motion.

With the top retracted, the Smart offers a breezy, wind-in-the-hair experience, the warmth of the summer Sun, and the sound and smells of the outside world wafting around the cabin. If it starts to rain, the power top is easy to retract without getting out of the car (assuming the roof rails are in place). When you think about it, this is a pretty sophisticated feature in sub $25,000 car.

Because the car is so light, it brakes quickly, but pedal feel is unusual: the brake pedal pivots from the floor rather than from above and the brake pedal is round – so European! The Fortwo has front disc/rear drum brakes with standard ABS and Brake Assist.

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

The electric power steering is easy to turn at slow speeds, and the Fortwo Cabriolet is easy to manoeuvre and park. One caveat: visibility to the rear is slightly obstructed by the rear pillar and the relatively small rear window.

Safety

The first thing people want to know about the Smart Fortwo is how well it would do in a crash. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently gave the 2008 Fortwo Coupe a “Good” rating in frontal offset and side impact crash tests, while the National Highway Traffic Administration gave the Coupe four stars for the driver and three stars for the passenger in frontal crash tests, and five stars for driver side impact, with a warning that the door unlatched and opened. Keep in mind that these tests were conducted on the Coupe not the Cabriolet. Another thing to keep in mind is that these tests assume an impact with a vehicle of similar size and weight.

During the press introduction for the new Smart, Mercedes showed a video of a 50-mph frontal offset crash between a full-size Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan and a Smart Fortwo Coupe. The Fortwo’s tridion safety cell appeared to protect the Smart’s dummy occupants and the dummies experienced “no severe injuries”, according to a Mercedes spokesperson. Interestingly, the 2008 North American Fortwo has a wider front bumper and front “crash boxes” that are 64 mm longer than the European model’s.

As the Fortwo’s wheelbase is so short, vehicles impacting the Fortwo from the side are likely to hit one or both wheels, directing crash forces through the axles rather than the doors.

Test Drive: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion car test drives smart
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

All Fortwos include two front airbags, and two side head/thorax airbags in the front seats. The seat belts have belt tensioners and belt-force limiters. The passenger airbag will deactivate automatically if a small child or a forward facing child seat or booster seat is placed there, and there is a tether anchor and lockable seat belt for child seats.

Still, you can’t help feeling a bit vulnerable in the Smart when pulling up beside an F-350 Crew Cab with 31-inch off-road tires. Driver skill may be the best safety feature to have when driving a Smart.

Verdict

An emotional purchase rather than a practical one, the $21,250 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion offers a power folding fabric top and excellent fuel economy but uses Premium fuel and has a jerky automatic transmission.

Pricing: 2008 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Passion

Base price: $21,250
Options: $590 (red body panels $430; dashtop tachometer and clock $160)
A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,795
Price as tested: $23,735
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Smart Fortwo

    Related articles on Autos

    First Drives

  • 2008 Smart Fortwo by Greg Wilson
    Test Drives

  • 2008 Smart Fortwo, by Norm Mort

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