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2009 smart fortwo ReviewThe Good
Designed for urban driving, the 2009 smart fortwo can fit into absolutely any parking space and proves remarkably roomy for a two-seat car.The Bad
Anemic power and a jerky automatic transmission combine to produce disappointing driving dynamics in the '09 smart fortwo.
The CarGurus View
Cute as a button and brimming with mod Euro styling, the 2009 smart fortwo carries a reputation for fuel-efficient, convenient, and hassle-free city driving. A great little commuter car, the fortwo takes the pain out of finding a parking space on overcrowded city streets, and offers a decent list of standard features that complement its surprisingly comfortable interior. Working out the kinks in the transmission and adding a bit more punch to the engine might make the fortwo a stronger player on U.S. shores.
At a Glance
Recently rated as the most fuel efficient non-hybrid vehicle in the U.S by the EPA, the 2009 smart fortwo arrives from Europe, where it has enjoyed an amazing popularity for the last ten years, thanks to its small size, perfectly suited for narrow streets and even narrower parking spaces. First conceived by the maker of Swatch watches (are you surprised?), the two-door coupe comes in Pure, Passion, and Passion Convertible trims and starts at the affordable price of $12,000.
The rear-wheel-drive fortwo measures just under 9 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 5 feet tall, coming in at 40 inches shorter than the MINI Cooper and 6 feet shorter than the Honda Civic. Smart claims that you can fit two fortwo cars into one normal-size parking space. Its small size and small engine produce hybrid-like fuel economy, and its eco-friendly ways extend to its engineering. Around 95% of its body parts come from recycled materials, and the dash is built entirely of flax. Its plant in Smartville, France has also been rated one of the greenest factories in the world.
For its arrival in the U.S., the '09 fortwo gets a few adjustments. A new Rally Red color replaces the bright yellow, and a Grey Metallic option replaces Red Metallic. On the inside, larger and flexible storage nets take over for the previous hard door pockets, and an indicator light alerts drivers to a loose gas cap. The Passion trim can now be equipped with either the panoramic roof from last year or the hard top at no extra charge, and the panoramic roof option for the base Pure has been discontinued.
The Swatch connection manifests itself in the form of the fortwo's swappable body parts – panels can be removed and changed to a different color so owners can customize their fortwo much like they could their Swatch watches. The '09 fortwo's unique truncated looks and European styling draw a lot of attention on the streets, and its easy and agile maneuverability and high fuel savings attest to its popularity among city drivers. However, the hype might exceed reality in this case, as the smart fortwo isn't that much cheaper than larger, better equipped, and equally fuel-efficient cars.
Only one engine powers all three trims in the '09 fortwo lineup. The 12-valve, 1.0-liter DOHC inline-three engine delivers a whopping 70 hp and a maximum speed of 90 mph. That translates to 12.8 seconds to go from 0-60. Meeting ULEV requirements, the fortwo achieves 33/41 mpg, which proves a boon at the gas pump, but actually disappoints reviewers and owners who were expecting Prius-like numbers from this sub-subcompact. In fact, one critic points out that several compact cars get better gas mileage. Looking for another downside? The fortwo requires premium gas.
A 5-speed automatic with manual mode is the only transmission, but it receives universally bad reviews. In automatic mode, lag time between shifts can be dangerous when accelerating and gear transitions feels lurchy and awkward. Drivers prefer manual mode, accessed through a standard shifter in the Pure trim or paddle shifters on the Passion. All agree that the manual mode takes getting used to in order to make the best use of the engine, and optimal operation requires taking your foot off the gas pedal (mimicking a standard manual transmission) before shifting.
Ride & Handling
The '09 fortwo comes built for city driving and city driving only. Its small footprint keeps the turning radius to a mere 29 feet and allows it to nimbly dart in and around parking spots most cars wouldn't even consider. The awkward and slow-shifting transmission provides some challenges in automatic mode, but flipping the lever to manual mode somewhat smooths the frequent transitions required in city driving and actually adds a touch of fun to the overall drive. Highway and passing acceleration can be a game of chance, and the underpowered engine struggles noisily at high speeds.
The tiny subcompact rides on 15-inch wheels and an independent Macpherson strut front and semi-independent rear suspension. Several owners call the handling sporty, and the fortwo's wide stance and light weight (just over 1,800 pounds) contribute to that slightly edgy feeling. However, its short 73.5-inch wheelbase takes away some stability, according to one test driver, making the standard stability control that much more appreciated. The small wheelbase and firm suspension also highlight bumps and ruts in the road, leading to a rather harsh ride overall. For short commuter hops, the fortwo proves tolerable, but both reviewers and owners agree that long trips can be taxing and uncomfortable.
Cabin & Comfort
Surprisingly spacious – that's the most common favorable comment that pops up on websites and reviews by car critics. Head- and legroom in the fortwo rival that in compact sedans, measuring 40 and 41 inches respectively. Front seats slide substantially back for extra legroom, and the passenger seat sits slightly behind the driver's seat in order to maximize shoulder room for both occupants. Test drives reveal supportive and comfortable seats overall, though some may find the seats too narrow.
Perhaps to combat its small size and remove any feeling of insignificance or intimidation when driving alongside a Hummer or Escalade, the '09 fortwo features a high driver height. This, along with the large windows, also maximizes visibility at all angles. Driver comfort could be better, however. The fortwo lacks tilt and telescopic steering, a feature standard on most compacts these days, and the front seats do not offer height adjustment.
Ergonomics generally receive good reviews from critics, with large and easily readable gauges and controls close at hand. The ignition sits low between the front seats, which can feel awkward at first but soon makes sense to most drivers. Two dash-mounted pods containing a tachometer and a clock can be added as options on the Passion trims, but some test drivers find these too small to read accurately.
In terms of cargo, the fortwo won't challenge any SUVs, but its 8-cubic-foot trunk can hold two overnight bags or a household's groceries. For long items, the passenger seat folds flat. A flip-down tailgate and flip-up rear window provide a wide opening for easy loading. Interior storage does its best, but limits itself to a small glovebox, a driver-side shelf, and two cupholders.
The base Pure trim keeps the pricetag down by keeping standard features to a minimum. It offers power locks, but not power windows or mirrors; remote entry and a trip computer, but no air-conditioning. And finally, its two-speaker radio lacks a CD player. Moving up to the Passion adds all these missing features plus an MP3 jack, wheel-mounted paddle shifters, automatic climate control, and the choice of a hard top or panoramic smoke-tinted roof that gives a nice sense of openness to the cabin. A convertible version of the Passion is also available, featuring a power soft-top and glass rear window. It also adds a 6-CD changer with surround sound and sporty leather trim for the steering wheel and shifter. Available options for the Passion trims only include heated leather seats and foglights.
To allay fears about its safety profile, due to its small and seemingly crushable size, the '09 fortwo comes well equipped with standard safety features. Foremost among these, the three-layer “safety cell” made of high-strength steel lends a solid rigidity to the body. Stability and traction control improve handling in the small car, and the front disc and rear drum brakes are supplemented by four-wheel ABS, brake assist, and Hill Start Assist. Dual front-side and side curtain airbags feature dual-stage deployment, and the passenger airbag has a cutoff function.
The 2009 fortwo has not received crash test ratings, but the 2008 model earned a Good rating from the IIHS (its highest rating) and mixed reviews from the NHTSA. Frontal impact gets three and four stars, with rollover tests earning only three stars. Only the passenger side impact gets the top five stars.
What Owners Think
Owners of the '09 fortwo have been pleasantly surprised at the roomy interior of this tiny subcompact, which offers ample head and legroom to keep anyone up to 6 feet tall comfortable. Although its cute looks might first attract potential customers, its gas savings, affordable pricetag, and city maneuverability turn those customers into fans. Drivers appreciate the tight turning radius and ease of parking. One New York City owner loves that his spot is always there when he gets back, since no other car can squeeze into it. The standard safety features reassure initially skeptical owners.
On the downside, the struggling transmission reigns as the number one aggravation for drivers. The underpowered engine and bumpy ride keep some owners off the highway. Others dislike the premium gas requirement and prefer the Prius, which gets better fuel economy and has more room.
CarGurus owners have yet to weigh in, but 2008 owners don't stray too far from the average comments. Highlights include the spacious cabin, superior parking capabilities, cute looks, and the removable panels. In addition to the lack of acceleration power, the jerky shifts of the automatic transmission feel to one driver like a beginner learning how to drive a manual.