I’ve taken a lot of time thinking about how to write this. While I love to write research reports for fun, I’ve never researched or written anything quite like this. So here is my best attempt. This is the long-delayed second part of my U-Haul series.
obsession passion with smart dates back to the year 2008. Since I first saw these cars, I made it my mission to know absolutely everything about them. When I got my first smart in 2012, I then made it a mission to also own most variants and models of smart produced and maybe find my way owning a couple of the concept vehicles too.
During this journey, there has been one question that to this date has not really been answered. It’s been bothering me for years and eventually I had decided that if no other person would figure it out, I would try my best to fill in that gap.
What is the question? How much weight can a smart tow?
The answer to this question depends on generation. So many people tow trailers with smarts that European insurance companies demanded a certification. Thus, the first generation (W450) smart is TUV certified to tow about 775 pounds. Interestingly enough, neither the second generation (W451) nor the third generation (C453/W453) were certified despite the second gen being used just as much for towing. Tow hitches for the third generation do not really exist yet, so anyone towing something with a 453 has custom-fabbed a tow hitch. People will even tow with a Crossblade!
A friend in the US smart community modified the existing Curt hitch design for the 451 to work with his 453. He improved the design along the way to also be stronger and less prone to rusting. He conducted his own (unpublished) long term testing and has concluded that a third generation smart can easily tow the 1,700 pound load he hauls for his business and could do more, but the hitch’s max weight is 2,000 pounds.
The 453 twins have good torque, short gearing, and a dual clutch transmission. The engine’s design would lend it to always being in torque and always being in boost while towing. The “normal car” stance of the 453 twins would also help with stability too.
So I guess that leaves me with the second generation (W451).
The second generation smart doesn’t have an official tow rating anywhere in the world, not even from a TUV. It does not even have a GCWR. The GVWR is also an amusing 530 pounds. There are actually a lot of smart owner couples who exceed the GVWR just by sitting in the thing. The official word in the manual is that the car tows absolutely nothing. It also used to say that the car itself couldn’t be flat-towed...Well, that was until RV owners and organizations proved that to be very wrong and the manual was amended for later years.
One thing that is clear is that thousands of smart owners around the world tow trailers with their smarts and report that the car makes a decent tow vehicle if you’re reasonable.
I’ve had many Kinja denizens also tell me that smarts are also popular track tugs. The low end torque makes towing a racecar around the pits pretty easy and since the car is road legal you can use it for errands when you’re done. Apparently the cars can easily tow more than their own weight for short distances. Watch this 450 tug a 451 on a trailer for a short distance.
There does also seem to be competing ideas of how much a smart can tow. Europeans tow over 1,000 pounds, where Americans don’t go any higher than the W450's TUV rating. If you stopped here and directed me to HammerheadFistpunch’s brilliant article on this very idea, I wouldn’t blame you.
However, in the case of smarts I have a hunch that the Americans are greatly undervaluing the fortwo’s abilities. I can’t blame them, there are only 70 ponies on tap, a transmission that laughs at your attempts to accelerate quickly, and a wheelbase that makes a mini SUV blush. None of these are traits you want in a tow vehicle...and that’s before you even look at the GVWR and the fact that the car comes with tyres that are just good enough for a car that size anyway.
At first, I never thought about actually testing out that hunch. In 2014 I had U-Haul install a towing hitch to my car. The original intention to it was that I’d get a bike rack for hundreds cheaper than the MB dealership offering and also be able to tow a motorcycle camper (like a TimeOut) if something like that ever happened.
It wasn’t until 2017 when I’d actually use the hitch. When it was time to move out of my apartment, I weighed moving vehicle options and a U-Haul trailer came out on top every time. I’d save a massive amount of money. However, there was only one problem: The empty weight of the trailer I’d need is 150 pounds greater than what Americans could say the car could tow and only 50 pounds fewer than what the Europeans started capping their limits at.
I ended up taking the chance anyway. I know these cars like the back of my hands, so I can monitor behaviour while towing.
The end result was astonishing. The car not only towed the 1,400 pound loaded trailer well, it barely broke a sweat doing it. Hmmm...
It was then that I decided that I’d finally try to shine some light on that question.
Before I go further, I must warn that I’m far from a professional. I gather as much data as I can, perform an analysis, and attempt to draw conclusions. I’m not an official authority and my words should be used more as information and entertainment rather than the final word.
Likewise, I could not recommend towing with any car that doesn’t have an official tow rating. If you crash and death/injury occurs, you may be charged with a crime even if it isn’t your fault. Always be safe and hold yourself accountable; you are responsible for your own actions.
After that first time towing a trailer with the smart, I became such a regular with U-Haul corporate stores that I was on a first name basis and my car was used as an example for people who were scared about towing a trailer.
I decided that if my testing concluded with favourable results, I would move forward with my idea of fibreglass camping. However, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that I would come to regret later on down the road.
I decided to test how the car tows in various environments and grade it on different metrics. I’m not sure if this proves anything or not, though the data I’ve gathered does seem to support that the car is better than most would think.
Here are some of my metrics:
- 5,000 miles or until something breaks, whatever comes first.
- All seasons, all weather conditions.
- City, Highway, Town.
- Braking distance.
- Tyre wear.
- Emergency braking.
- High wind.
- Starting and stopping on hills.
- Trailer sway.
- Top speed.
- Traction Control.
- Stability Control.
- Engine temperature.
- Transmission temperature.
- Fuel economy.
- Engine load.
- Intake Air Temperature.
- Codes (if any).
- Transmission/Clutch/Clutch Actuator behaviour.
Now the hard thing to track was transmission temperature. There does not appear to be a transmission temperature sensor in this car...That or a Scangauge and an Ultragauge cannot read it. However, since the engine and transmission are both packed into a minuscule space behind the seats, I have noticed that when the transmission heats up, it also heats up the engine, the parking brake handle, and the cabin.
2012 smart fortwo passion coupe (yes, that’s all lowercase) “Tucker”.
- 130,000 miles (142,000 at end of testing).
- 70 bhp Mitsubishi 3B21 engine.
- Single clutch automated-manual gearbox.
- Curt hitch (max weights: 200 tongue, 2,000 trailer).
I decided that one of the couple upgrades I’d do would be the rubber that contacts the road.
First 1,000 miles:
— Nankang Toursport NS (195/50/15) Load Rating 82 (1047 lb)
Remainder of testing:
— Vredestein Quatrac 5 XL (185/60/15) Load Rating 88 (1235 lb)
I chose the Vredesteins for their low price, great winter traction, and their reinforced sidewalls. More on that later.
- U-Haul AV (enclosed 5x8 trailer, 900 pounds empty).
- U-Haul AO (open 5x8 trailer, 950 pounds empty).
I’d then toss in random heavy objects into these trailers for testing, typically old appliances found in the shed of my parents’ rental property. Total weight was usually 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, plus and minus 180-ish pound passenger.
Now, I suppose it’s time to discuss my findings. First thing’s first, I was surprised to see that no matter what test I conducted, I could not produce any trailer sway that is worth noting. Even when I intentionally loaded the trailer more towards the rear, you could feel tiny tugs, but it was business as usual otherwise.
I believe this is because of a couple factors:
- U-Haul trailers are designed to reduce sway. The small trailers could make do with a shorter tongue, though I believe their longer length helps them track better.
- Most of a smart’s weight is in the rear, possibly leading to less wandering when weight pushes on the hitch?
At any rate, not only did the trailer not sway - even in high winds - but it also helped the smart not get blown around by crosswinds. I suspect the combined weight of the whole rig sort of helped it beat wind into submission a little better.
Manual Mode on the transmission is a MUST. It is well known within the smart community that the programming for Auto Mode is far from intelligent. This lack of intelligence is amplified while you are towing. It never knows what gear it wants to be in and you’ll almost always not be in power when you need to be.
Using Manual Mode, I replicated similar shift points that my parents’ Ford Expedition uses in its “Tow/Haul” mode. The results were about as expected. When shifting at 4-5k rpm, the car is already in power in the next gear.
Amusingly, past 1,200 pounds trailer weight and at highway speed, there’s no point in even trying 5th gear. The car will struggle and your fuel economy will dip into the mid-20s.
Another interesting thing to note is that I’ve found that not babying the clutch is the best practice. I noticed that if you give the throttle a nice jolt on a green light, the clutch engages 1st gear faster instead of slipping while you babied it up to speed. You only need to get up to 5mph to engage gear, make it short.
The smart’s engine cooling system made short work of the extra load. Normal operating temps without a trailer was 188 degrees. With a trailer that number was only about 195-200, or perfectly within normal operating range. Only intentionally abusing the engine did I get temps to begin exceeding 200 degrees. The engine doesn’t begin “overheating” until 230 degrees and higher.
One of my favourite tests was “top speed in high winds, empty trailer”. I saw that a day was forecast to have 30 mph wind gusts, 20 mph sustained wind, and roughly 70 degrees ambient temperatures.
I decided to race up and down I-94 doing a bit of a stress test on the transmission. I could not exceed 70 mph without generating way too much transmission heat and beating fuel economy into submission at only 19 mpg. I covered 300 miles in that test and I fully expected the transmission to call it quits, but once I dropped below 70 mph the transmission cooled down and life went back to normal. I may be looking into a transmission cooler for future testing.
Braking is actually pretty awesome. The brakes on a smart are decent to begin with, hence why the rears are drums. With a trailer, stopping distance does increase, but nothing that couldn’t be easily handled. Panic stops are truly amazing considering that you’re hauling nearly the car’s own weight. I wouldn’t say “it stops on a dime”, however trailer brakes won’t be necessary unless you plan on tackling steep downgrades.
Perhaps the most amusing finding is ride quality. Once I ditched those lame Nankang tyres, the trailer actually improved ride quality. Instead of getting jolted by bumps, the car sort of just rolled through them without cratering your fillings. The rear end also seems more planted with better quality tyres. If anything, the upgrade is worth the extra safety and peace of mind.
If I had to compare the experience of towing a 1,000+ lb trailer with a smart to another vehicle, it would be my parents’ expedition towing this, but on a much smaller scale.
Alright, so based on a bit over 5,000 miles of testing through all conditions (snow storms, subzero temps, floods, etc), here are my conclusions for now.
And, again, it’s necessary to note that I’m not an authority and the results could be entirely different for other smarts.
These are what I’d feel safe doing in my car with a passenger with me. The car can do more (save for tongue weight, do not exceed that at all), however one shouldn’t run their car at its limits like that.
Trailer weight: 1,400 lb
Tongue Weight: 200 lb
Top Speed (calm): 70 mph
Top Speed (any kind of inclement weather): 60 mph
Expected Fuel Economy: 30 MPG
- Stronger tyres.
- Car computer (Ultragauge/Scangauge).
- Transmission cooler???
Honestly, I’m not sure what else to note here. My data was literally a bunch of incoherent notes scribbled down in notebooks then transcribed onto Notepad notes on my MacBook.
Further, do not buy a smart thinking that you’ll get a tow rig out of it. If you want a cute little tug for the track or something you can occasionally haul some furniture with, go for it. These cars are better at the job of towing than you think. Just be smart (haha), know the risks (legality, insurance, etc), and do your homework.
Also, please read ‘Tow me down!’ It’s an excellent resource on tow ratings in the US vs EU.
Big thanks to U-Haul of Waukegan and U-Haul of Grayslake, I couldn’t do it without you!
And hopefully one day I’ll be the only U-Haul CT13 owner who tows with a smart. There was at least one vintage Shasta owner who towed with her smart.
Side note: If there’s any interest in it, I think I can offer a prize for Oppo COTD. At the end of the week I’d pick an overall winner and write a research report on a car of choice for the winner. Though, don’t make the car of choice too obscure!
About The Author
Mercedes recently gave in to the temptation of buying a fourth smart. See what happens when you don’t give her an intervention? The next item on her bucket list is a U-Haul CT13 or that Mustang-killer smart.