At the height of the gasoline crunch last year, small cars looked good, but tiny ones, or micro minis, looked even better. Enter the Smart car, so small that when it first appeared no one considered it viable for the U.S. market. Built by Daimler, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, the Smart car successfully infiltrated the European market and came to the United States in January 2008. Last week, I got to drive the latest version, the Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet. More functional than it would appear, but less capable than the average car, the Smart has one definite plus, it’s more fuel-efficient than most.
Driven from Austin to Marble Falls and San Antonio, the fuel economy turned out to be on target. But tossed about on the highway, especially on IH35, the Smart fits an urban setting, as opposed to a suburban commute, much more comfortably.
Intended to fit “nose in” to parking spaces (they were parked perpendicular all over Rome when I visited last year), the Smart had no problem negotiating parking on Sixth Street.
Powered by a 1.0-liter, 70 horsepower, three-cylinder engine, the Smart earns an EPA estimated fuel economy of 33 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 41 mpg on the highway.
Gas saving, however does come at a cost—performance or the lack thereof. Matched to a five-speed automated manual transmission with paddle shifters, the Smart, unlike other compacts, cannot be called peppy. A true clutchless manual, the rough-shifting transmission pauses dramatically between gears. Utilizing the paddle shifters on the steering wheel or shifting with the gear shift in manual mode does help soften the transmission’s gag reflex but the bottom line is, the Smart has limited power so drivers need to exercise caution when entering traffic. Once at speed, it keeps up with traffic fairly well.
In a worst-case scenario, i.e. a collision, the outcome may be less one-sided than expected. The Smart did receive a good to fair ratings in front and side impact testing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Safety features on the Passion Cabriolet include full-size driver and passenger airbags, head/neck side airbags, the electronic stability program with hill start assist, the anti-lock braking system with electronic brake force distribution, a tire pressure monitoring system and a tire repair kit.
At first glance, the Smart’s itty-bittiness captured my attention. Inside, however, a tall roof and ample legroom belie its size. The two-seater also offers respectable cargo capacity. Not sure if it meets the minimum golf bag industry standard but it held both pieces of my luggage nicely.
Creature comforts include air conditioning, power windows, and a six-disc CD player.
The Smart Fortwo Passion is a cutie and tooling around town can be fun, particularly in this model, which converts to into a cabriolet with the push of a button. The soft top with a heated rear glass window automatically folds back, even at speed. For the full cabriolet experience, simply remove the side roof bars that can be stowed in a special compartment in the tailgate.
Pricing for the cabriolet starts at $17,235 with destination fees. Electric power steering added $445 and a few aesthetic touches like the blue and silver metallic color scheme brought the MSRP to $18,205.
Pricey but quite the conversation piece, the 2009 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet accommodates an urban lifestyle and parallel (or perpendicular) parking.