This weekend saw me test driving two products I adore, the first is the camera on my new phone, and the other is the 3rd Generation smart fortwo. On a rainy Saturday at Chicago’s Navy Pier, there is no better place to have some fun with the next generation of the city car that took Europe by storm.
The new generation cars ditch the mostly disliked single-clutch gearbox for either a snappy DCT or an honest three pedal manual.
The new configuration works too...mostly. The cars are plagued with an aggressive Eco Mode setting that makes pedal response time incredibly slow. You hit the gas pedal, wait............and you’re off!
More on this later...
Under your boot space resides an adorable three cylinder engine producing a respectable 89bhp accompanied by an equally adorable turbo. This combined with a manual transmission is what a petrol smart should have always been. A lot of checkboxes are marked here. The turbo kicks in at just the right amount of time to push the car forward and put a smile on your face.
The car has just enough power to intoxicate you with every shift and spooling of the turbo...or maybe that’s just the interior fabrics and plastics. When you come out of that daze, you’ll also realize you’re probably still within the speed limit too. As Jeremy Clarkson described with the roadster (but it’s actually true now), it’s hard to drive through one without smiling.
Backing up the extra grunt is a wider stance, offering much better handling characteristics, better crosswind resistance, and even better ride quality. The car is no longer swallowed by potholes, instead it holds its ground and doesn’t shake out your fillings.
The new smart feels much less “go kart” and more “car” than the previous generation. If the first generation smarts were kids, the second generations were teenagers, and now we’re entering adulthood. Thankfully, this car grew up without losing any of its character. It’s still weird and unique top to bottom, but at least this time around, the car is serious about the business end of the deal.
The new fortwos even look more grown up. They put on a pug face this time around, accompanied with a more traditional two-box design. To be honest, they aren’t that photogenic, they look better in person than in pictures...and personally, I would have retained the spacepod-like one-box design.
The 2017 model year is also the introduction of the convertible model (seen below), once again making smart’s the least expensive new soft-top cars you can buy in America. Does it work? Absolutely. As fun as it is to have the polycarbonate clear roof on the coupes, the best experience driving through the city is with a clear unhindered view of Chicago’s beautiful skyline.
Unfortunately, not everything is amazing. Let’s go back to the transmission. In Sport Mode, the car comes alive...like a dose of strong caffeine. Pedal response time became so sharp, I was able to break traction on the damp roundabout of Navy Pier.
However, despite how lovely Sport Mode is, Eco Mode leaves some to be desired. On top of the infuriatingly slow pedal response time, the transmission also chooses some interesting shift points. At very very low speeds, such can translate to a teensy bit of the “bucking” that the previous generation had.
Unfortunately, such is the nature of even DCT transmissions, however you’ll notice it more on these cars because they’re rather light. I don’t really mark this as a negative because I understand Eco Mode will be fine for most people who aren’t of the car enthusiast type. And so long as they aren’t in really slow bumper to bumper traffic, they’ll never notice the shifting of the transmission.
Another part of the car that didn’t see an “on paper” improvement was the fuel economy. Fuel economy is unchanged...which considering the engines provide more power and the car is heavier than the previous generation, is not entirely a bad thing. Mercedes Benz markets the car as an “upscale” city car, with its unholy ability to make impossibly tight turns and take tiny parking spaces to be its main selling points. I still would’ve wanted better fuel economy, but I do understand that these cars aren’t meant for economy.
One final thing I don’t like is a design element. The car’s exterior and interior are built with vastly better materials than you’d expect...enough that you can take Mercedes Benz’s “upscale” claim and not just roll over laughing. That said, I think one thing is missing: Side skirts.
Previous generation smarts have a side skirt under the tridion cell. Such was great because that meant if rocks or salt was thrown from the wheels, it would safely coat a plastic panel with drain channels, and not directly hit metal. I know these cars have amazing rustproofing properties, but I still like the extra safety of at least having that extra layer of security.
The new models don’t have skirts (you can get some sort of skirts with the Brabus package, but they aren’t what they used to be) and instead have the exposed tridion cell taking up the underbody space between the wheels. Again, this isn’t a bad thing and I’m probably just paranoid. I like how my 451 has a pretty much completely sealed belly pan. Does it work? I’m not sure. The car is nearly 5 years old with 120k on the clock, no rust, so I guess everything’s cool.
The new generation also sees a price increase of on average $1,000 of the outgoing models. Which, considering that the previous generation came out in 2007, isn’t too bad. To be honest, the bulk of that price increase is the additional cost for the DCT. Without the DCT, the price of the car is only a few hundred more than the predecessor...which considering how much better the new car is, is a pretty decent deal.
All in all, I think the new 3rd generation smarts are the movie sequel that is somehow better than the original. The new cars are almost universally better than the outgoing models...and finally, even enthusiasts can find a home behind the wheel as well!