Tiny, Way Stylish, Smart Car Both Is and Ain’t

uly 16 (Bloomberg) — Forget the Lamborghinis and Bentleys. The hot car of the moment? The one that has people shouting at you on street, asking about price and top speed? The 9-foot-long Smart.

The answer to those shouted questions is that it costs $11,590 to $16,590 and has a top speed of 90 miles per hour. The Smart is a car for an era when less is more and good gas mileage is suddenly sexy. By that calculation, it’s one of the biggest, sexiest rides on the road.

To answer the next questions, it holds 8.7 gallons and gets 33 mpg in town, 41 highway. Happy times. Made by Mercedes-Benz, the Smart has been sold in Europe since 1998. Its very tardy arrival stateside coincides with our petrol blues.

Just over 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, the pug-nosed dimensions are unique, and with its dent-resistant plastic siding, there’s a certain clown quality to it. No wonder people do double takes and break into smiles.

The Fortwo, available as a coupe or cabriolet, does indeed seat two, and it’s easy to get in and out of, with long doors spanning the front and back 15-inch wheels. Seats are big and, even in the convertible version I tested (called the Fortwo Passion Cabriolet), there’s ample headroom. My knees ran up against the dashboard’s knee pad, though, which is part of the steel safety cell designed to absorb energy in a crash. Otherwise, even with a 6-foot passenger alongside, it’s plenty roomy.

Four Air Bags

The Smart has done well in crash tests, with four air bags and standard electronic stability control. The brakes also pull the 1,852-pound convertible to a surprisingly assured stop.

For an urban dweller, it’s hard not to focus on the potential dividends, the ability to slip into itty-bitty parking spots being the major one. So I put it to the ultimate test: On a day with a dozen errands to do all around New York City, I take the car.

Let’s start by saying this: A tiny auto — the Smart is 3 feet shorter than BMW’s Mini — means you’ll have to sacrifice some things. Powered by a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine good for 70 horsepower, it’s maybe one-fourth as powerful as most cars I test. So that sudden punch of acceleration you may be used to? Scotch that. At times, the engine seems to suffer from narcolepsy.

The bigger issue is the transmission, which is so lousy it verges on being a deal breaker. A five-speed automated manual with an internal clutch, it can be left in automatic mode or manually controlled via wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Similar systems are often found in sport cars like the Audi R8.

Pregnant Pause

While other manufacturers talk about shifts that take 10ths of seconds, this one feels like tens of seconds. As it transfers from second to third, there’s a long, pregnant pause as all power ceases — causing the car to pitch forward — and upon finally shifting (hallelujah!) the weight pitches violently back.

With practice I find some workarounds to this issue, mostly by getting on the gas early and pegging it to the floor. Or sometimes winding the engine up near the redline in first gear and holding it there as I drive between stoplights. This doesn’t do the gas mileage any favors, however.

The steering is good; direct and linear. And with no nose up front, you can thread through city traffic creatively. You’ve got to watch out for taxis and delivery trucks, though. The Smart has tons of charisma, but it isn’t intimidating.

For an extra $3,000, the convertible is a great option. Fully automated, it pulls back like a sunroof, then accordions along the back. Best of all, it can be operated at highway speeds, and the rear window is glass. For storage, the back is accessed through a hatch that folds down like a pickup truck (and which you can actually sit on). With finesse you can wedge two golf bags there, or enough groceries for your fridge. The passenger seat also folds down flush.

No Hecklers

I find my first parking spot in front of a fire hydrant on the Upper East Side and am approached by construction workers. I’m expecting to get heckled, but no, they’re just curious. The Smart makes you approachable in a way that belies every New York City instinct.

So it goes all day. I find spots on Madison Avenue, the Lower East Side, even Soho. As I pull into one cramped nook, a woman says, “Lucky you.” A youth with baseball cap pulled down low yells out, “That’s hot!”

One last test: The highway. Merging into traffic among tractor trailers, I feel like a minnow joining a pod of whales, though I am soon up to 70 mph with the top down. It’s noisy and I wouldn’t want to drive cross-country in a Smart, but you could probably withstand a daily 30-mile commute.

And yes, it really does go up to 90 mph. It takes a bit of nerve and two hands on the wheel, though the reaction on other drivers’ faces as you pass them is worth every penny.

The 2008 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet at a Glance

Engine: 1.0-liter, three-cylinder with 70 horsepower.

Transmission: Five-speed automated manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 12.8 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 33 city, 41 highway.

Price as tested: $17,110.

Best features: Maneuverability in city; ability to squeeze it into tiny parking spots.

Worst feature: The abysmal transmission.

Target buyer: The urban traveler, or the driver looking for a non-hybrid that gets more than 30 mpg.