I was in Seattle on August 2th to get a test drive of the new to the USA (and Canada for that matter) 2008 smart fortwo.
The smart is a two seater micro-car that is designed by Mercedes-Benz, conceived by Nicolas Hayek of swatch fame and Daimler-Benz in the mid-1990s. The goal was to build a city car that was ecologicaly responsible (compared to other cars) and would make travel and parking in urban areas simpler. The first smart cars came off the assembly line in Hambach, Lorraine, France in late 1997, and the first ones were sold in 1998. 770,256 of the first generation models were sold worldwide between 1998 and right about now.
The smart is currently sold in 36 countries worldwide, and the USA is set to become the 37th in January 2008. Canada got the car in diesel form between October 2004 and now (there are under 90 unsold new smarts remaining in Canada, where nearly 10,200 have been sold). To add to the confusion, there is a company in California, G&K automotive, which does a grey-market conversion of the European gasoline-powered original smart, and some 800 or so of these have been sold in the USA for prices as high as $30K (ridiculous IMO).
Roger Penske's Penske Auto Group (PAG) is the official importer for the USA and the advent of "official" smart cars should spell the end of the grey market conversions.
PAG has had a smart car reservation/deposit program in place since earlier this year, and to date they have over 30,000 pre-orders. Officially, they expected to sell about 20,000 per year in the US, which would still make the USA a major smart market.
PAG has been taking a "smart car caravan" consisting of 71 horsepower naturally aspirated gasoline-powered 2007 model European market smart cars on a USA-wide tour since early summer, and this tour is mainly for the benefit of the 30,000 depositors, to give them a chance to try out the car and decide whether to make a firm order. It is also typical of smart's guerrilla marketing. They almost never use conventional means to advertise.
Anyway, as a Canadian owner of a diesel smart car since the first week of 2005, I was curious about the new car. We will get it in Canada too, but we're not getting any early test drive opportunities, so I, my youngest daughter and two smart-owning friends drove down to Seattle to check out the new cars first-hand....hoping we would get a test drive despite not being potential PAG customers.
The Seattle area smart dealer will be immediately to the East side of Acura of Seattle at Southcenter Mall in Tukwila, close to I-5, I-405 and Sea-Tac.
We rolled up there in our older model smarts and parked near where the tests were happening....the eyes of the smart USA people were on us as we arrived.
The first thing we did is go up to the registration desk, where we were asked if we'd like to test the cars. You bet! They got us to sign a waiver and lay down our BC driver's licenses, ee got our test drive wristbands and that was it.
First impressions: smart have got the exterior design very right! The styling of the new car is very successful in my opinion....true to the spirit of the original but in a few ways, better. Ergonimically too, it is improved. One of the ways it is better is in the well-known details: more room in the trunk, more passenger space (I could move the seat back further than in my car and the dead pedal was perfectly placed for me, unlike in my own car), easier access to the front for washer fluid, brake fluid reservoir, coolant overflow bottle and headlight bulbs.
The interior is nice too. Some current smart owners have decried what they call a lack of originality in the new fortwo's interor design details, but I am not in the school of thought that says there is no funkiness in the car's interior now. It is still nice, modern, ergonomically sound and has some of the cheap plastics found in the older model, so I felt right at home.
I drove two cars there, a black on black cabriolet which had neither paddle shiffters on the steering wheel nor a tachometer, and then a coupé that had both.
The cabrio drive was nice, and although the top was up with A/C blowing hard when I got in (these cars seemed to have very effective A/C while at idle), I put the soft roof all the way down while driving, and that sure is a nice feature. The glass rear window is a major improvement over the plastic item on my car too.
The 71 HP engine was surprising on a couple of counts: it seemed anemic off the line (moreso than the diesel) and it vibrated a bit more than my diesel cdi at idle, though it was inaudible. That said, it accelerated more quickly than the diesel, in a smooth and non-cammy way (no VTEC-style neck snaping at 6K RPM in this car). This is typical of European cars, in my experience...
I would think that smart should consider re-calibrating the tip-in point for the accelerator pedal to suit US tastes, because most US cars rocket off the line with a very small depression to the accelerator pedal. With the 451, you had to mash it to make the car get up and go. Once accelerating, it subjectively felt no faster than the 450 cdi in the first two gears, but that could be because the new model is quieter inside, and is missing a gear in the lower range (it has a 5 speed sequential manual as oposed to the old car's 6 speed).
Also, it doesn't do the rocking horse moton during gearshifts as much when accelerating hard, which although annoying in the older version, at least gives a sense of occasion to bursts of (moderate) acceleration! No doubt the new model with 71 HP is a lot faster than the old diesel, but subjectively it didn't seem to be. The official times are 0-62.1 MPH in 13.3 seconds for the new one, versus 19.8 seconds for the diesel.
The torque impression, compared to the old diesel, is weak (and the new car does have less torque than the cdi, despite weighing 40 kg more). Still it pulled quite well and I doubt that anyone would compain that it is so slow as to be dangerous. Top speed is limited to 145 km/h (92 MPH).
In my opinion, this is a car range crying out for the optional Brabus turbocharged engine, which kicks out some serious torque and has 98 HP, getting the 0-62.1 MPH time under 10 seconds. This model s being introduced in Europe as I write this, and a 112 HP version will be unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show next week. Offering a 71 HP version for fuel economy buffs or Joe/Jane Average, and a hotshoe version for sportier drivers would be a great idea. There is also an 84 HP turbocharged version in Europe.
Note that these acceleration times are not the type that the automobile magazines would wring out of cars with regular manual transmissions (power-shifting for example is not possible as the gears are selected by servo motors), so they will be representative of real-world driving,not horrific car abuse on the test track, with smoking clutch linings.
I had a better opportunity to assess the engine in the second car, the one equipped with a tachomter and clock pod on top of the dash, as well as the delightful steering wheel-mounted shifter paddles. Curiously, this car's engine seemed to be rougher than that of the cabrio. It actually buzzed a bit at a certain rpm (might have been a rattle in the engine compartment). The engine delivers its power smoothly but in an almost un-noticeable manner, meaning there is no shove in the back when you get up to 4000 or more rpm. So it seems that - as with the older model - the engine noise and vibration is a bit more obvious in the coupé, whereas the cabriolet has less engine noise but more wind noise. Nevertheless, the engine is smooth and unobtrusive in accelerating, but also unimpressive. The noise is high when the engine is over 4000 rpm, and it soundls like a Geo Metro, which is not a bad thing.
The transmission is supposed to be 50% faster than ours when changing gear, but I could not detect much of a difference. Perhaps it is a little quicker, but the shift pauses are still there and noticeable. On the other hand, the shifts ar smoother and more similar to how a true automatic would operate.
The exterior temperature indicator in the cabrio was malfunctioning, as it indicated 20 degrees C when it was at least 30 degrees out. I pointed this out to the smart USA employee riding shotgun with me.
On the one (square) block test drive we had, there was no opportunity to test the roadholding. The ride was certainly better than on the present model. It feels more like a "real car" than the older model. I would say that, like my own carl, this car would massively benefit from wider rubber, preferably 175/55-15 on the front and 195/50-15 on the rear, tightening up the steering response and stability at speed. The new pulse version wheels which wear these wider tires - not to be offered in the USA or Canada by the dealers - look nice, from the photos they had on dislay. these will be available on the aftermarket (genuine smart wider wheels like I have, as well as other brands).
Incidentally, the test cars were all on Continental Eco Contact 3 low-rolling resistance tires, 155/40-15 front and 175/55-15 rear, which I presume will become available in sizes suitable for the older model too (namely 145/65-15 front).
The fuel flap said that the car needs 95 RON fuel, which would be 90 US Octane. I forgot to ask if they have a knock sensor.... so it remains to be seen if the USA/CDN version of this car will need more than 87 RON+MON/2....it will be a marketig problem for sure if the car requires premium only.
We spent some time examining the possibilities for retrofitting aftermarket cruise control to these cars. The manufacturer does not envision offering cruise control on this model, unlike the previous one (my car for example has factory cruise control, a grey-market install, because it was not offered "officially" in Canada). Again, I think CC is a must. Although it is a city car, many people would be tempted to buy it as a commuter car, and cruise control would be a welcome item for people like that.
One detail I didn't like was the inclusion of upholstery on the back of the seats. The older model seats have a hammered enamel finish, highlighting the seat's thick deformable metal safety cell structure, which is still there in the new seats, but is not obvious. They look like 1975 Pinto seats from behind, but they are supremely comfortable! There would appear to be enough room behind the driver's seat for a full-sized (front) spare tire. The car comes with a tire re-inflation kit.
Much has been written about the supposedly poor fuel economy potential of this smart. This UNINFORMED SPECULATION is remarkable. I read about "40 US MPG" etc as the EPA highway rating, when the car hasn't even been certified yet. I can say that in the European test cycle, this car gets 50 US MPG in the combined cycle (on 95 RON fuel), so I would expect the FE potential to be there for those who want to maximize efficiency. As you all know, EPA ratings are tougher than before, and perhaps it will be in the low 40s combined. We will see.
Safety: the new model has been designed to achieve 4 out of 5 stars in the EuroNCAP tests, so it'll be as good as other small cars.
Prices start at under $11 K US for a base model, which comes with ESP, ABS, Brake Assist (all the Mercedes active safety stuff), 4 airbags, power windows remote central locking, leather steering wheel and shifter, driver-selectible automatic mode, transparent polycarbonate roof. A fully loaded convertible will cost just under $17 Grand.
I will try to upload some photos when I get my busted (for a second time) Canon MP600 printer back.
I gave the main smart employee there a Canadian Eco smart sticker after we were done and he gave me a smart "open your mind" T-shirt in exchange (discreetly because he didn't have very many). which was a nice gesture. He was keen to drive one of our cdis but, we both had to leave before the show was over at 7:30 PM, my friends to get back to Abbotsford and Kelowna and us to catch the last ferry from Tsawassen to Nanaimo BC at 10:45 PM.
Would I buy one? Sure, if I didn't already have a diesel convertible! But my car is lots of fun and gets staggeringly good fuel economy with no effort, so I'd be nuts to change it. If I was in the USA, I would definitely get one of these.
The six speed was really a compromise, a three speed gearbox with two final drive ratios. The excessive number of gears is useful for the diesel engine with its narrow torque peak band (1800-2800 RPM) but it was overkill on the gasoline cars, which like to be revved. The spacing is set up so that when shifting at the top end of that torque range, the next gear up comes in around 2100 RPM, which made for good linear progress. The 3-4 shift is slower than the others because not only does it go from gear 3 back to 1, the final drive is also changed. The new box doesn't have that issue.
So on the new model, the 5 speed is a normal gearbox with one final drive ratio.....5 speeds is fine, though I have read reviews of the new cdi diesel from Germany that say there are now gaps in the torque band. This will only be noticed by North Americans if we are ever offered the new diesel though. Its average fuel consumption rating in Europe is 71.2 US MPG.
And they're supposedly bringing a hybrid version of the cdi out next year (for Europe); count on 80 MPG US average.
But, I want the paddle shifter that comes with the "Passion" model and the manual window that comes with the "Pure" model. If I started with the "Pure" model, would I be able to retrofit the paddle shifter?