2016 smart ForTwo first-drive: Better, not bigger

The ForTwo is unmistakably a smart car and unique in many ways, but it's still a car that isn't for everyone. You either love it – and are willing to shell out the not-inconsiderable amount of money to buy one – or you hate it. The middle ground for the ForTwo is nonexistent, as far as I can tell. That being said, for owners of the original, the ForTwo is in my opinion a worthy upgrade. A refined chassis: check. More horsepower, performance and handling: check. A newly redesigned interior offering a more luxuriously grown up look and feel: check.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4EQA68Uy-M

What's new with the ForTwo and how it translates to a better driving experience

So what makes a smart ForTwo unique among its competitors? According to smart boss Dr. Annette Winkler, there's been no mucking with one of the key elements, the length, yielding a car that clocks in at precisely 8.8 feet. It's enough to make the ForTwo the ultimate car for city parking, where space is a premium.

It's not to say the dimensions haven't changed elsewhere, though. The width of the car is now nearly four inches wider, meaning more shoulder room in the cabin and better road handling. While the ForTwo's wheel base may be short, I found that potholes and bumps on the road were soaked up fairly well thanks to the wider stance and increased suspension travel.

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All the same, there's no getting around the slightly disconcerting bouncing sensation due to the short wheelbase. You can't defy the laws of engineering, and it's something smart is going to have a hard time solving without making the car longer. Opting for the Sport suspension will get you stiffer springs, and lowers the car by 0.6-inches.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j15ibNCjBM

The other important number is the turning circle, which smart has managed to cut down to 22.8-ft. On most two-lane roads, therefore, the days of a 3-point turn just to pop a u-turn are over.

The ForTwo is still rear wheel drive and the engine is also in the rear, underneath the tiny trunk. More importantly, the changes to the second-generation car include larger headlights with LED running lamps, and it leaves the whole front much happier looking. Design and style feel a lot more grown-up, even if driving in circles is entertaining and driving around town – which much of smart's suggested route involved – is a whole lot of fun.

The 898cc, turbocharged, three-cylinder engine is zippy, cranking out 89 horsepower and 100 pound-feet of torque: nearly double that of its predecessor. With the relatively small curb weight it means there's enough get-up-and-go power to cut the ForTwo's 0-60 mph time by 2.8 seconds, taking 10.1 seconds with the 5-speed manual transmission and 10.5 seconds with the DCT.

All the same, buyers of the ForTwo probably aren't going to care one iota about that number because they're spending most of their time on tight city roads and suburban streets: the battle grounds where the ForTwo was born to kick ass.

New with this generation, there are now two transmission choics: a six-speed, dual-clutch Twinamic automatic and a 5-speed manual. I'm not expecting sales of the manual transmission to be too high compared to the new 6-speed dual-clutch (DCT), in part because if I had to pick the single most important upgrade to the ForTwo, it's most definitely the improvements with the smoother DCT. On the base ForTwo Pure model DCT is a $995 option, but it comes standard on higher trim levels.

For the most part, the DCT does a far better job of working with the engine control software. Shifts proved quick and effortless on the highway, but there were a couple of occasions during city testing where it stuttered here and there. I'm tempted to blame the lacking torque at lower engine speeds, however: keeping the three-pot at 3,700 rpm or up yielded the most power, with the redline arriving at 6,500 rpm.

Eco or Sport mode? That's entirely down to whether you want better driving dynamics with more responsive throttle and smoother shifting. Eco mode certainly exacerbated the stuttering I experienced, likely a side-effect of the car trying to maximize fuel-economy and hold higher gears longer.

City driving yields 33 mpg while highway is expected to come in at 39 mpg, for a combined mpg of 36.

Interior design

The newly upgraded interior is another day and night change from the old car, with a more modern look and feel that arrives just as competitors are upping their game in the premium compact segment.

I'm a moderately tall guy – right at 6'2” – and I never really felt like the car was short on headroom. After a little finagling with the seat adjustment, my legs were able to stretch out comfortably; all the same, I missed not having not having a tilting/telescoping steering wheel for more granular adjustments. It's a smaller cabin after all, so I guess something had to give.

Meanwhile, I'm still not entirely sure why the tach is separated and moved to the left side of the dash, rather than keeping it near or around the 3.5 inch driver display. It's not a deal breaker by any means, but it does underscore smart's downplaying of the importance of power over flexibility.

The "smart" aspects of the smart ForTwo

Obviously a "smart car" requires a smart app. I've been asking for years to to bring my own content and simply allow my phone be at one with my car, and happily smart delivers just that with its smart CrossConnect app.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zM5PmJhzzY

Free, and available for both iOS and Android, you can think of it as an all-in-one infotainment app. It'll handle everything from controlling the car's radio and navigation settings, track your driving habits like fuel consumption, whether you keep to the speed limit, and what sort of G-forces you're pulling, to media playback from locally-stored content.

At the same time, what self-respecting smart car that prides itself on being able to squeeze into any tight spot would arrive without a crowd-sourced parking feature? SmartSpots is a driver-generated database of legal parking spots suitable only for the ForTwo, though exactly how useful it is will depend on how many other drivers of the car are near you.

What makes the CrossConnect and SmartSpots apps really useful is how your phone integrates with the dashboard. The cradle I tested was made for an iPhone 6 though smart tells me that, at the car's launch, a larger version will be available for the iPhone 6 Plus. Android-base phones can hook up via USB connection. The smartphone cradle costs $100, and snaps easily into the ForTwo's center console to keep your device at ready reach.

Safety features

Size always worked against smart in the US as much as it played in the old ForTwo's favor: many drivers just couldn't believe such a small car was safe, particularly if it went head to head with a larger SUV or truck.

When you're the size of a minnow in the shark-eat-shark world of automotive, it's critical you have the proper armor. In the case of the ForTwo, that means the Tridion safety cell.

Effectively a visible roll cage that encircles the passenger compartment, for the new car it's been redesigned with lashings of ultra-high-strength steel to provide more protection in the case of crash. Optionally, you can add other safety systems like Forward Collision Warning and Crosswind Assist.

While the bi-color panels aren't much of a safety feature, opting for some of the brighter colors would at least make it harder for others to miss you on the road.

smart trim levels

Starting at $15,400 you get the ForTwo's entry model, the called Pure. That comes standard with the 5-speed manual transmission, along with basic features such as cruise control, an anti-theft alarm, stereo with Bluetooth for pairing up with your smartphone, steering wheel controls, and LED daytime running lights.

Spending another $1,490 for the Passion trim level opens up more interior color options and a leather steering wheel, power heated mirrors, and a rear cargo cover. The Prime trim level asks an additional $2,840 over the Pure, and gets everything from the Passion trim along with a leather-wrapped shift knob, leather heated seats, LED lights, and fog lights, as well as a panoramic sunroof.

Proxy is the most expensive trim level, priced at $3,830 over the base model. Your $19,230 nets you a blue and white interior, as well as a JBL sound system, Sport suspension package, and 16 inch wheels.

The car may be small, therefore, but none of the prices particularly are, and it means you have to really, really want either a smart in particular or its combination of tiny footprint and easy parking in order to justify it.

According go the company, the likely buyer of the ForTwo is someone living in an urban environment such as Portland: one of 20+ locations smart has determined are "smart cities". Sure enough, if you live in a place where a parking space is worth as much as a home in the midwest, the ForTwo is perfect for you: there's nothing quite like it for fitting into impossibly tight spaces while still delivering fuel savings.

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