2016 Smart Fortwo review

Completely different, but still the same

2016 Smart Fortwo
2016 Smart Fortwo. Photo © Aaron Gold

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The Smart Fortwo ("For Two") first appeared in the US in 2008, and while it did develop a small fan base, it wasn't an overwhelming success. Was that because of the car's tiny size or its annoying foibles? With an all-new and largely improved Smart Fortwo hitting the streets, were about to find out.

Larger photos: Front - rear - interior - all photos

First Glance: You either like it or you don't

The Smart Fortwo is one of those cars for which writing a review is an exercise in futility.

This is a two-seat city car with no back seat and a tiny trunk. It'll do a U-turn in the narrowest of alleys and you can fit two of them into a single parking spot. Chances are your mind is already made up: Either you think it's brilliant or you think it's ridiculous.

If you think the Fortwo is brilliant, you're going to love, love, love the all-new-for-2016 version, because the boffins at Mercedes-Benz (Smart's parent company) have fixed nearly all of the problems with the old one. For those fortunate enough not to have driven a 2008-2015 Smart Fortwo, let's just say the car had its issues: It had a bumpy ride, the world's most annoying transmission, and it was a constant victim of crosswinds. It accelerated with all the urge of a narcoleptic sloth and had a surprisingly urgent thirst for premium unleaded fuel.

Quite a lot has changed for 2016; one of the few things that remains the same is the length: It measures in at 8.8 feet, about four and a half feet shorter than a Honda Fit.

The safety cage concept remains—note the contrasting color on the bodywork—but the face is all new and more, well, car-like. Don't let the stubby nose and grillework fool you; the engine is still in the back. (More on that soon.) By the way, 2016 sees the introduction of the coupe only; the convertible will take a one-year hiatus before returning in 2017.)

In the Driver's Seat: Elbow room

Larger interior photo

Though the length is about the same, the 2016 Smart ForTwo is four inches wider than the outgoing car, and that makes a big difference in the cabin; no longer is the driver forced to rub elbows with the passenger. Leg- and head-room remain perfectly adequate, though the non-adjustable steering column dictates an arms-out driving position. And for all the extra elbow-room, there's no comfortable place to put your elbows: There are no center armrests and the padding on the door is punitively solid.

A few of the old Smart's more bizarre elements are gone: The key now goes in the steering column, rather than the floor, and the pedals are hinged at the top, not the bottom. Storage spaces abound, though the locking glovebox is pretty tiny. And the bright colors are back: If solid black or black-and-gray doesn't suit you, Smart buyers can choose orange seats and this blazing blue-and-white combo, and all come with a nifty knit-pattern cloth dash.

Trunk space measures up at 12.2 cubic feet, enough for gym bags and groceries. Said trunk uses a split-tailgate design; the window glass goes up and the bodywork comes down. The tailgate contains a hidden storage compartment, and Smart says it'll support 220 lbs.

Perfect for a tailgate party I suppose, but I still find two-piece tailgates to be annoying.

Smart includes a removable cargo cover with a skirt that Velcros to the trunk floor. It keeps objects from falling down behind the seats, but it eats up storage space. The big problem with the trunk is that it sits right above the engine. I had my backpack back there, and after a long day of driving, it was hot to the touch. I'm sure that wasn't good for my laptop, and it would have been even less good for a grocery bag full of ice cream and other frozen food.

On the Road: New, less-annoying powertrain

It's all-change for the Smart Fortwo's engine; about the only thing the new powerplant has in common with the old is that it employs three cylinders. The new engine is a Renault-sourced 0.9 liter three-cylinder; thanks to a turbocharger, it turns out 89 horsepower, 19 more than the old car.

But the real improvement is the transmission. The old Smart had a 5-speed automated manual (basically a manual transmission that did all the clutching and shifting for you), and you could read a book in the time it took for it to change gears. The new Smart gets a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It's still a bit pokey off the line—floor the throttle from a stop, and you might think the car is ignoring you—but the shifts are smooth and immediate. It also shaves about three seconds off the 0-60 time, which Daimler quotes as a leisurely-but-not-quite-deadly 10.5 seconds. EPA fuel economy estimates are similar to the old car at 32 MPG city and 39 MPG highway. (You might expect better from something so small and light, but the Smart's stubby shape dictates lousy aerodynamics.) As with the old car, the Smart requires premium fuel.

Another pleasant surprise: You can get the Fortwo with a manual transmission! It's a lovely five-speed unit with a smooth clutch, and it makes the Smart feel a good deal sprightlier. In terms of fuel economy, the manual gives up 1 MPG in the city. (I managed mid-to-high 30s with both transmissions.)

The rest of the driving experience is far more pleasant: The ride is more compliant and the steering is more firm. Braking in the automatic car is always an adventure; even with a steady foot on the brake, the car decelerates abruptly as the transmission releases the clutch at low speeds. But Mercedes has addressed the issue of crosswinds by fitting the Crosswind Assistance system from the big Sprinter vans. It detects sudden gusts at high speeds and applies selective braking to keep the car on track.

By far, though, the most entertaining thing about the Smart Fortwo is the turning circle—a mere 22.8 feet. The Smart can pull a U on a single-lane street and still have room to spare.

NEXT PAGE: Fortwo vs. the competition

Journey's End: All better—but do you need one?

Another thing that has changed is the price: The Smart Fortwo Pure now starts at $15,400 including destination charge. The Pure model gets more standard equipment, including power steering, power windows, air conditioning, and a stereo, all of which were extra-cost options on last year's $14,020 base model. But the automatic transmission, once standard, is now a $990 option.

Smart didn't give us a full price list, but I drove a top-of-the-line Proxy model that stickered for $20,670, and that was without all the available options.

And therein lies the primary problem with the Smart: The Nissan Versa and Versa Note, Chevrolet Spark and Sonic, Mitsubishi Mirage, Ford Fiesta, and Kia Rio are all less expensive. And then there's the Honda Fit, which is more expensive than the base-model Smart but is one of the most versatile small cars you can buy. All of them come with air conditioning, most come with power windows and locks. Many get similar or better fuel economy, and because of the Smart's need for high-octane gas, they're cheaper to fuel. And all of these manufacturers throw in a back seat for free.

So we’re back to the point I made at the top of the page: This review is largely pointless. If you’re intrigued by the idea of a tiny two-seat car that can turn around in less space than you can, then you’ll be pleased as punch with all the improvements Smart has made for the 2016 Fortwo.

On the other hand, if you think the idea of a stubby two-seat car is ridiculous, especially when you can buy a four-seater that is cheaper to fuel and costs less money, then nothing about this new Fortwo is going to change your mind. -- Aaron Gold

What I liked about the 2016 Smart Fortwo:

  • More comfortable and better to drive than the outgoing model
  • Tiny turning circle
  • Bright colors inside and out

What I didn't like:

  • Fuel economy isn't as good as other small cars…
  • ...and it requires premium fuel
  • Small, hot trunk

Details and specs:

  • 2016 sees the introduction of an all-new two-seat Smart
  • Price range: $15,400 - $22,200 (est.)
  • Powertrain: 0.9 liter turbocharged three-cylinder/89 hp, 5-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel-drive
  • EPA fuel economy estimates: 31 MPG city/39 MPG highway (manual), 32/39 (automatic)
  • Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper
  • Best rivals: Chevrolet Spark, Nissan Versa, Mitsubishi Mirage

Disclaimer: This review was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. Travel, accommodations, meals, vehicles and fuel were provided by Mercedes.