First Drive: 2011 Smart Fortwo  smart first drives electric green news
2011 smart fortwo. Click image to enlarge

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2011 smart fortwo

Essen, Germany – Somewhere, in a parallel universe, there is a book publisher printing a dictionary that bears absolutely no resemblance to the ones we know here. Mercedes-Benz’s Smart division owns one.

That’s the only explanation I can imagine for the company calling the 2011 Smart Fortwo “the new generation.” While there are some new trim pieces and options, the sweeping changes that are generally associated with a next-generation car aren’t there: the chassis and powertrains remain untouched. Still, its introduction was a great opportunity to visit Smart Brabus’ facility, where the vehicles are customized, and a chance to drive an all-electric version that will make its way to Canada later this year.

Few vehicles are as polarizing as the Smart. Fans love the tight-parking size, fuel economy and European funkiness; detractors primarily complain about how much they cost in relation to larger and less-expensive subcompacts, their strict two-seater configuration, and concerns about safety. The reality is somewhere in the middle. The cabin is six-footer spacious despite the car’s tiny footprint, it’ll easily bring home a week’s worth of groceries, and although NHTSA and the IIHS have differing opinions of its crashworthiness, I’ve driven them fearlessly at highway speeds, simply remembering that, like a motorcycle driver, I have to be aware that drivers in larger vehicles know I’m there.

First Drive: 2011 Smart Fortwo  smart first drives electric green news
First Drive: 2011 Smart Fortwo  smart first drives electric green news
First Drive: 2011 Smart Fortwo  smart first drives electric green news
First Drive: 2011 Smart Fortwo  smart first drives electric green news
First Drive: 2011 Smart Fortwo  smart first drives electric green news
2011 smart fortwo. Click image to enlarge

Both the coupe and convertible continue into 2011, and depending on the configuration, trim lines are Pure, Passion and Brabus. In Canada, the Fortwo comes with only one engine choice, a 1.0-litre three-cylinder (actually 999 cc, to be exact) producing 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque. It runs on gasoline; our last diesel Smart, the only engine available when it was first introduced to Canada, was phased out after 2007, a victim of tighter emission regulations and the brand’s upcoming introduction into the U.S. The transmission is also unchanged, which is a disappointment: the automated five-speed is a lurchy unit when left to its own devices, and while it can be smoothed out by shifting it in manual mode, it requires perfect timing and a lot of practice to get it right each time.

For those smitten with this little urban runabout – and despite its faults, I’ve always been fond of it – the Fortwo’s new features make the cabin more inviting. The instrument panel is redesigned, the cool dash-mounted clock and tachometer pods are now standard on all models, ambient lighting brightens the footwells and door pockets, there are more storage boxes and pockets, and cruise control is available. A navigation system can now be added, along with Bluetooth connectivity and an optional surround-sound stereo. The running joke was that, in a car this small, it would only need one speaker in the roof to be “surround,” but in reality, its phenomenal quality turns the Smart into a miniature concert hall.

On the outside, the body shell can now be ordered in white, as well as in black or silver, the fuel door is painted body-colour, and on the coupe, the tailgate can now be opened with one hand, instead of having to reach to the tabs on both sides. But by far the most visible change is the addition of front LED running lights. The Canadian specifications will be carved in stone closer to the official on-sale date in September, so it’s not yet certain if they will only be on the upper trim lines, or will appear on the entry-level Pure trim as well. Either way, they’re expected to be a late-availability item. Pricing will also remain under wraps until closer to launch, but for comparison, the 2010 models range between $14,990 for the Pure coupe, to $24,900 for the Brabus cabriolet.

First Drive: 2011 Smart Fortwo  smart first drives electric green news
2011 smart fortwo. Click image to enlarge

It’s always tough to be a Canadian on an overseas press event, and see what we’re not going to get. European buyers can opt for a diesel, of course, and there are two versions of what the company calls MHD, or “micro hybrid drive.” It isn’t a hybrid per se, in that there’s no battery assist for the gasoline engine; instead, it includes a start-stop system that shuts the engine off when it isn’t required, such as when sitting at a stoplight, for improved fuel economy and emissions control. It worked very well in the test car I drove. Mercedes-Benz will include a start-stop when it launches the S63 AMG later this year, and Porsche already has it on the Panamera and Cayenne, but it isn’t planned for Smart in Canada, at least not in the near future. That’s a pity, because it’s a great system, and one that I fully expect will be standard equipment on almost every new vehicle within the next decade or so. The lights, climate control and stereo continue to run while the engine is off, so why burn gasoline if you’re not moving forward?

Europe also gets the best part of Brabus: a 102-horsepower version of the little three-cylinder (a 112-horsepower model is also available). It scurried very nicely at 120 km/h on the Autobahn en route to the Smart Brabus GmbH headquarters in nearby Bottrop, and thanks to its extra power and transmission tuning, its gear changes were far smoother than the conventional Smart. Alas, while we can order almost all of Brabus’ other offerings in Canada, specially-tuned engines must stay across the pond.