2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe; photo by Jil McIntosh
2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe; photo by Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

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By Chris Chase

Introduced in Canada in 2005, the Smart Fortwo was the second European-bred “boutique” car to come to North America, following the 2002 arrival of the BMW-built Mini Cooper. It wouldn’t be the last, either, as Fiat’s cute-as-a-button 500 went on sell here for the 2012 model year.

The Fortwo was the least conventional of this trio, though, with its two-seat interior and, initially, a 0.8-litre, three-cylinder diesel engine that made 40 horsepower and 74 lb.-ft. of torque. That was matched with a robotised manual transmission that had to shifted by the driver, unless an optional automatic mode was specified.

A 2008 redesign brought a new engine, a 1.0-litre three-cylinder gasoline motor ostensibly designed as part of Smart’s foray into the U.S. market. It made 70 hp and 68 lb.-ft. of torque, and paired with an improved, but still imperfect, transmission that defaulted to an automatic mode but could still be shifted manually.

The new engine improved the Fortwo’s performance, but had a negative effect on fuel consumption, with Natural Resources Canada ratings of 5.9/4.8 L/100 km (city/highway), compared to the 4.6/3.8 L/100 km rating for the old diesel engine. James Bergeron averaged 6.4 L/100 km in a 2009, gas-powered Fortwo, while a diesel model Jil McIntosh tested in 2005 averaged 4.5 L/100 km.

2008 Smart Fortwo; photo by Greg Wilson.
2008 Smart Fortwo; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The Fortwo was offered as a coupe as well as a convertible, which got a fabric roof that simply peeled back from the windshield header.

In 2010, Smart added a Brabus trim, which comprised bigger wheels, sport exhaust and suspension, heated leather seats and sport steering wheel, plus other cosmetic and convenience add-ons.

Naturally, there were many sceptics who felt this diminutive car wouldn’t fly in Canada’s marketplace. There were doubts about its crashworthiness, what with all the large SUVs the Fortwo would share our roads with. Then there were the questions about how it would handle our less-than-pleasant winters. And never mind that it only had 40 horsepower and was funny-looking.

The crashworthiness question can be answered this way: here’s an account from ClubSmartCar.com (http://www.clubsmartcar.ca/forums/viewtopic.php?t=858) about a member whose Fortwo was hit by a Kia Sorento in 2005; his family believes the car, which rolled over at highway speed, saved his life. Then, British TV show Fifth Gear crashed an unmanned smart Fortwo into a concrete barrier at 70 mph (about 120 km/h) to see how it would hold up. The answer? Remarkably well, considering the circumstances. See the video on YouTube.com.

2008 Smart Fortwo; photo by Greg Wilson.
2008 Smart Fortwo; photo by Greg Wilson.
2008 Smart Fortwo; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The Fortwo didn’t go on sale in the U.S. until 2008, so that’s the earliest that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have data on the car. The IIHS gave the Fortwo a “good” rating in its frontal offset and side impact tests, though there were indications that the driver’s head could hit the steering wheel through the airbag in a severe frontal crash, and injury to the driver’s lower right leg were possible. In the side impact test, the door came unlatched, which, says the IIHS, “shouldn’t happen because, in some crashes, it could allow partial or complete occupant ejection, especially if the occupant is unbelted.” There were no indications of serious injury to the driver in a crash of this severity.

The door also came unlatched in the NHTSA’s side impact test, but the car earned five stars in the test for its excellent protection of occupants. The NHTSA gave the Fortwo four and three stars, respectively, for driver and passenger protection in a frontal impact.

EuroNCAP, more or less the Euro-land equivalent to the NHTSA, noted similar weaknesses in frontal impact protection, but their results back up the American organizations’ complimentary assessments of the car’s side impact strength.

And as for the Fortwo’s winter driving characteristics, talk to CanadianDriver contributor Michael Clark, who spent a week with one in Canada’s winter capital, Winnipeg, Manitoba. His assessment was mostly positive; read his review here. Peter Bleakney took one of a road trip in nicer weather; his account can found here.

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