2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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San Jose, California – As cute and huggable as the Smart car is, there were serious reservations about whether a tiny diesel-powered, two-seater urban car would succeed in the Canadian marketplace when it was introduced here in the latter part of 2004 as a 2005 model. Since then, Mercedes-Benz (Smart’s parent company) has sold over 10,000 Smart Fortwos in Canada, enough to justify introducing the next generation model here this month, and for the first time, in the United States of America beginning in January, 2008.

The second generation Fortwo looks a lot like the first gen model (which was originally introduced in Europe in 1998) but in fact it’s been completely redesigned: its “Tridion” steel safety structure, interchangeable, recyclable plastic coloured body panels, cabin design, engine and transmission are all new.

Still available in both coupe and convertible (cabriolet) bodystyles, the 2008 Fortwo is 195 mm (7.6 in.) longer, 44 mm (1.7 in.) wider, 7 mm (0.3 in.) lower, and it’s wheelbase is 55 mm (2.1 in.) longer. Still, at 2.69 metres (8.8 ft.) in length, it’s a very short car by any standards and takes up about half the length of a typical parking spot.

2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

Exterior styling differences for 2008 are subtle: new headlamp lenses, new grille, new dual taillights, and a new air intake on the left side of the rear fender are the most recognizable exterior changes. Base “Pure” models have a black Tridion safety cell and uplevel “Passion” models have a silver safety cell. 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.

Inside is a completely new instrument panel with a new speedometer face, a rotary ventilation dial replacing sliding controls, relocated door lock button, a/c button, and seat heater buttons; a larger radio with a bigger display screen, and relocated cupholders. The optional tachometer and clock remain perched on top of the dash. Available interior colours include grey for the Pure model, and black, red and beige for the Passion model. Leather seats are available in the Passion model.

Perhaps the most significant change for 2008 is the switch from diesel to gasoline power: the former 40-hp 800-cc three-cylinder diesel engine has been replaced with a 70-hp 999-cc three-cylinder gasoline engine, while the six-speed clutchless manual transmission and optional automatic transmission have been replaced with a new five-speed automated manual gearbox with a manual shift mode.

The Fortwo’s new gas engine is not quite as fuel efficient as the diesel, but it’s still the thriftiest non-hybrid automobile sold in Canada. The former diesel engine offered 5.7 L/100 km city and 3.8 L/100 km highway while the new gas engine offers 5.9 L/100 km city and 4.8 L/100 km highway, according to Smart’s own figures.

Performance has improved markedly: whereas the 2007 Fortwo accelerated leisurely from 0 to 100 km/h in over 20 seconds, the ’08 Fortwo does the same distance in 13.3 seconds and has a top speed of 145 km/h. Its exhaust emissions are also cleaner, now meeting Ultra Low Vehicle Emissions (ULEV) standards. But though the new car’s CO2 emissions of 130 g/km are low, they must be higher than the diesel engine because it didn’t burn as much fuel.

In Europe, 2008 Smart’s are also available with a diesel engine and a turbocharged gas engine – it’s rumoured the turbo engine will come to Canada next year.

2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

A price reduction for 2008 makes the new Smart Fortwo a better value than the old one, but it’s still relatively expensive when compared with subcompact cars like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. The base Fortwo Pure Coupe model now starts at $14,900 (down from $16,700 in 2007) but the Pure is no longer available in a Cabriolet body style. The mid level Pulse Coupe and Cabriolet have been discontinued for 2008. The top-of-the-line Passion Coupe now starts at $18,250, (down from $19,650) and the Fortwo Passion Cabriolet now starts at $21,250 (down from $22,650).

It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but the 2008 Smart Fortwo is expected to qualify for the Federal government’s highest Eco-auto rebate of $2,000. That’s quite a saving on a $20,000 car, but don’t expect to get that rebate cheque too soon – the government has just started mailing out cheques for 2007 models.

Pricing and standard equipment

2008 Smart Fortwo coupe
2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo coupe (top) and cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

The base $14,990 Fortwo Pure Coupe model has a black Tridion safety cell and standard 15-inch tires (155/60R15 in front and wider 175/55R15 at the rear) with steel wheels and wheel covers. Standard equipment includes projector beam headlights, five-speed automatic transmission, leather steering wheel, power windows, remote power locks, radio/CD player with two speakers, flat folding passenger seatback, front and side airbags, seat detection system for deactivating passenger airbag, electronic stability control, hill start assist, rear wiper and washer, and a tire repair kit – there is no spare tire.

Options on the base Pure model include electric power steering for $700, automatic climate control with air conditioning for $840, heated seats $350, fog lamps $145, a non-opening glass sunroof with a sliding sunshade for $540, and metallic paint $430.

2008 Smart Fortwo cabriolet
2008 Smart cabriolet
2008 Smart Fortwo cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

To the standard features on the Pure model, the $18,250 Fortwo Passion Coupe adds attractive nine-spoke alloy wheels, Tridion safety cell in silver colour, electric power steering, a large non-opening glass sunroof with sliding sunshade, 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; three-spoke leather sports steering wheel with shift paddles, power windows, power heated mirrors, heated seats and intermittent rear wiper and washer. Options include leather seats for $750, metallic paint $430, alarm $210, fog lamps $145, and dashtop tachometer and clock for $160.

The $21,250 Fortwo Passion Cabriolet adds a power sliding convertible top, removeable roof rails, and a new heated glass rear window. The removeable roof panels store in a cavity inside the trunk lid.

Driving impressions

2008 Smart cabriolet
2008 Smart Fortwo
2008 Smart Fortwo cabriolet. Click image to enlarge

I journeyed to California for the introduction of the 2008 Smart Fortwo because the car is being introduced in the U.S. for the first time and Canadian journalists were invited to join the tail end of the American introduction. Considering that Americans have never seen Smart Fortwos on their roads before, I was surprised it didn’t attract more attention. I got the impression they didn’t really take the car seriously – as though they thought it was some kind of experimental electric car that didn’t really belong on the road. People under 20 seemed to be the most interested.

Getting into the new Fortwo is surprisingly easy. The door openings are large and there’s plenty of headroom and legroom for occupants up to six feet five inches tall. The new instrument layout is easier to see at a glance and easier to operate than the previous model’s, especially the larger radio and display screen and the relocation of some buttons from the top of the dash to the front.

2008 Smart Fortwo coupe
2008 Smart coupe
2008 Smart coupe
2008 Smart Fortwo coupe. Click image to enlarge

The driving position provides excellent visibility but the seat is not height adjustable and the steering column doesn’t tilt. Nevertheless, both my six-foot co-driver and myself (5′ 9″) found the driving position very comfortable. One oddity: the brake pedal pivots from the floor rather than from below the dash, and this feels unusual.

The new 70-hp gasoline engine provides better acceleration than the previous Fortwo – 0 to 100 km/h in 13.3 seconds – but that’s still slower than most other small cars on the road. The transmission is geared so that acceleration is brisk from rest, and around town the Fortwo keeps up with other vehicles nicely. But at higher speeds, acceleration is laboured, and you’ll need to choose your passing distances carefully.

As with the previous model, the new Fortwo is able to maintain a cruising speed of 120 km/h on the freeway with no problem. Still, its short wheelbase makes it twitchy at high speeds and it gets blown around by strong side winds. The ride is a bit firm at those speeds, and there’s quite a bit of wind noise too, but the new gas engine is surprisingly quiet and the engine revs along with a moderate rumble at 3,000 rpm at 100 km/h in top gear.

In both city and highway driving, the new gas engine is definitely quieter than the diesel, and fuel is much easier to find.

Cornering is predictably nimble, and though the body is tall and short, it doesn’t feel tippy in the corners. Handling stability is enhanced by wider tires at the rear and standard electronic stability control and traction control. As well, with the weight of the engine over the rear wheels, the Fortwo has pretty good traction, even in the snow, although there was no snow in California to confirm this.

The new five-speed automatic manual transmission is just that: a manual transmission that shifts automatically. Like the previous six-speed automatic manual transmission, the new one lurches when it shifts – the revs suddenly drop and there’s a pause before the next gear is engaged. It’s not quite a jerky as the previous transmission, but it’s not as smooth as a conventional automatic transmission with a torque converter. As well, when stopped at a traffic light, the car creeps forwards unless you put your foot firmly on the brake pedal, or engage the hand brake. When starting on a hill, the Fortwo’s Hill Start Assist system will prevent the car from rolling back when the brake pedal is released. The brake is released as soon as the driver accelerates.

The five-speed automatic also has a sequential manual shifting mode which allows the driver to shift up by tapping the gear lever back,

2008 Smart Fortwo coupe
2008 Smart Fortwo coupe
2008 Smart cabriolet
2008 Smart cabriolet
2008 Smart cabriolet
From top: shift levers; polycarbonate sunroof; cabriolet with tailgate open; cabriolet with passenger seat folder flat. Click image to enlarge

and shift down by tapping the lever forwards without using a clutch pedal. Passion models also come with paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, allowing the driver to shift manually without taking their hands off the steering wheel. As well, the driver can shift down by slapping the accelerator pedal, a feature also found on some Porsches. This allows the driver to immediately shift down one or two gears at once, in both manual and automatic mode. I found myself using the manual shift when I wanted to accelerate more quickly or gear down on steep hills.

Around town, the Smart Fortwo is in its element. Its short length makes it easy to fit into any parking spot – you can even park frontways into the curb. Its small steering wheel and electric power steering (optional on base models) requires little effort and combined with a tight turning circle and good visibility, the Fortwo is easy to manoeuvre and park.

The Passion Coupe includes a large polycarbonate sunroof for extra light, but it doesn’t open. A sliding sunshade is included. The Passion Cabriolet has a power sliding “sunroof” that can be opened and closed at any speed. As well, the roof rails can be removed and stored in the tailgate.

Luggage space behind the seats is more than you might expect. We were able to fit two overnight bags and two laptop bags behind the seats. Loading luggage is easy: in the Coupe, the lower tailgate drops down, and the upper window lifts up, revealing a large cargo opening. In the Cabriolet, the tailgate drops down and the rear convertible roof and window lift up. All models have a fold-flat passenger seat for carrying longer items.

Safety

Being a very small car, it’s not surprising that Mercedes made a special point of telling us about its many safety features – this is obviously a major concern for many buyers. In a high-speed collision, the Fortwo’s “Tridion” high-strength steel safety structure is designed to keep the occupants protected by distributing the crash forces around the cabin. As well, the North American Fortwo has a wider front bumper and the front “crash boxes” are 64 mm longer than the European model’s.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence for me was a Mercedes crash-test video of a 50-mph frontal offset crash between a full-size Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan and the new Smart Fortwo. The Fortwo’s safety cell appeared to protect the Smart’s dummy occupants, and we were informed that the dummies experienced “no severe injuries” in the test.

In side impacts, the Fortwo’s short wheelbase means that the impact is likely to be absorbed by one or both of the wheels, reducing cabin intrusion. As well, all Fortwos include two front airbags, and two side head/thorax airbags in the front seats – the latter are designed to protect the torso and head in a side impact. Seat belts with belt tensioners and belt-force limiters are also standard. 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.

2008 Smart Fortwos are arriving now in all 46 Canadian Mercedes-Benz Smart showrooms.

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