My first experience of the Smart car took place back in 1998 when I was given a demonstration drive at the Mercedes-Benz Proving Ground at Unterturkheim in Stuttgart.
Mind you, I wouldn't have been so keen had I known that the test driver was going to use the banked circuit. The first lap was pretty much all 'white knuckle,' but by the second lap I realized that despite its diminutive size and small footprint, the Smart was perfectly stable under extreme conditions not likely to be faced by the average commuter.
The Smart concept was the brainchild of Nicholas Hayek of Swatch (Swiss Watch) fame.
He took a look at the congested streets of Europe's major cities and realized there was a place for a vehicle that took up half the space, used half as much fuel and generated half as much pollution as a regular car. He took the idea to Mercedes-Benz and together, they made it happen.
Today, the Smart Fortwo is celebrating its 10th birthday, is sold in 37 countries and is nearing the one million sales mark.
Launched in 1998 but first sold here in 2004, the current model is the second generation and while it looks little changed from its predecessor, it has been entirely redesigned from the inside out to be as eco-friendly as possible.
The modular design uses interchangeable body panels and many components made from renewable raw materials or 100% recycled plastic. The ultimate goal of the plant (called Smartville) in Hambach, is to achieve a complete vehicle that can be re-cycled . . . from renewable materials.
Form has to follow function on such a small car and so the designers have made a virtue of its ladybug shape by giving it a grille with a grin, smiley projector-style headlamps, standard fog lights and generous glass areas that highlight the large, airy cabin.
With a wide track -- and sitting on 15-inch wheels -- it presents a stocky, "glued-to-the-road" stance.
Safety is a prime consideration that starts on the inside with the rigid, high-strength Tridion safety cell that protects the cabin and its occupants.
Front and rear crumple zones are designed to absorb impacts while the safety cell resists deformation.
Full size, dual stage front seat airbags and head/upper body side airbags along with three-point seatbelts with pre-tensioners and belt-force limiters are standard. The upgraded power train for 2009 features a 1.0-litre DOHC, three-cylinder engine with four valves per cylinder putting out 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque.
Power enough to get the Smart from zero to 100 km/h in under 14 seconds, cruise effortlessly on the highway and reach an estimated top speed of 140 km/h.
But don't look for the engine under the hood. It's hidden away under the rear floor where it adds to the Smart's low centre of gravity - and stability - and powers the rear wheels.
The front "service flap" gives access to windshield washer fluid, coolant and the headlights.
The five-speed automatic transmission moves through the gears with deliberate steps -- upshifting too soon for my liking -- in order to maximize fuel efficiency.
Fortunately, it has a manual mode (just tip the gearshift forward or back to change up or down) that I found much more comfortable and easy to use, particularly in stop-and-go city traffic.
The transmission also responds promptly to accelerator kick-down for highway overtaking.
Best of all, the Smart Fortwo is the most economical non-hybrid on the road, delivering a miserly 4.8 L/100 km on the highway and 5.9 L/100 km in the city (premium grade).
The Smart Fortwo comes in two versions, the pure, starting at $14,990 and the passion starting at $18,250 (in coupe and cabriolet styles).
Our tester was the pure coupe finished in black with grey cloth interior. The original cabin design was a bit over the top in cuteness but the revised layout is more conventional with a simplified instrument panel that features a single, multi-functional display seen though the steering wheel.
All the key information is right there including the large speedometer with readable black on grey numerals, gear selection, fuel gauge, turn signal indicator, loose gas cap indicator, odometer and trip odometer plus outside temperature, clock and service interval reminder.
A tire pressure monitoring system will also alert you when you lose 20% of pressure in any tire.
The manually adjustable bucket seats are firm and comfortable with excellent lateral body support and integrated head restraints. The interior décor is a mix of light and dark grey surfaces with matching fabric elements on the instrument panel.
Brushed metal accents highlight the air vents, leather-wrapped two-spoke steering wheel, gearshift faceplate, door pulls and handles. The quality of the materials and the fit and finish are excellent.
I particularly liked the soft mesh door pockets and simple sliding controls for AC/Temperature Selection and Fan speeds.
The basic two-speaker, smart radio 9, features seek and scan functions, six station pre-sets and integrated CD player.
Our tester included a couple of extras including a huge glass roof with sunscreen and air-conditioning. And there's a surprising amount of cargo space, especially when you fold down the front seatback.
To describe the Smart Fortwo as "quick on its feet" would be the understatement of the year. With its short length of just 2.695 mm (8.8 ft), power rack and pinion steering and a turning circle of 8.75 m (28.7 ft), it can literally "turn on a dime" and deke its way through downtown traffic like Sidney Crosbie on a breakaway.
The Smart Fortwo can hold its own in town or on the highway thanks to dynamic assists like electronic stability program, four-wheel, power-assisted brakes and electronic brake force distribution that all work seamlessly to maintain grip and directional control on any surface.
And when it comes to parking, you can use your imagination.
The Smart Fortwo is a big hit with Islanders, says Simon Grainger of Three Point Motors.
"We have led the way in Canadian sales and you see more Smart Fortwos here than anywhere else in the country. It's the perfect vehicle for daily commuting to Victoria, island hopping or coping with Vancouver's traffic congestion."
Alan McPhee is a Canadian automotive journalist and is former editor of Carguide Magazine. His articles appear each week in this space.
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SMART FORTWO PURE COUPE
Type: Sub-compact, 2-seater
Engine: 1.0-litre L3
Horsepower: 70 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 68 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
Fuel economy: City - 5.9 L/100 km; hwy - 4.8 L/100 km
Base price: $14,990
Price as tested: $17,778
(includes PDI and freight)
Vehicle provided by Three Point Motors, Nanaimo
© Copyright 2013