Meet the Nerdmobile

Posted on 15 Jan 2016 at 7:30am

Low on horses but big on heart, SmartForTwo is a couple’s dream ride

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SMART DESIGN | The 2016 Smart improves upon prior models, with more safety features and a Mercedes-level suspension.

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
autocasey@aol.com

My crazy love for a Smart is well documented, but I’m one of those nerds who fell in love on a trip to Europe and couldn’t wait to order one when they became available stateside in 2008. In fact, I ordered mine in February 2008 and took delivery a year later!

Screen shot 2016-01-14 at 3.08.53 PMBut my seven-year-old car has its issues. The five-speed automated transmission seemingly takes a smoke break during gear changes, crosswinds keep drivers unnerved and putting it through the Smokey Mountains between Knoxville and Asheville rivals 500 miles of Indy. Given 71 horsepower, it can maintain 80 mph all day, but there’s nothing in reserve. Trying to stay ahead of a semi, I once sounded like an old Catholic praying for a turbo.

Prayers answered for 2016.

Any child could tell it’s a Smart from the Tridion safety cell frame to the rear-mounted engine. Gaze head-on, and you start to see the car’s additional half-foot of width, taller hood to meet European pedestrian crash standards and LED driving lights. Its profile is more two-box than one, but looks handsome with plastic body panels, square taillamp pods, and 15-in. alloys. Surprisingly, it’s no longer than the outgoing model.

A wider cabin lets two people sit side-by-side without being staggered. The multicolor dash design features fabric coverings as before, but is dominated by a center LCD pod for infotainment and automatic climate controls below. Doors are noticeably thicker for side impact protection. Bluetooth, USB and convenient cupholders were added. A clever drawer slides out of the console.

Clear roof panels, heated leather buckets and a leather-wrapped steering wheel remain, though the eyeball tachometer and clock have combined into a single sprout on the driver’s left. The two-piece tailgate can be deployed with one hand. A flip-forward front seat and roomy cargo hold can haul a painting or two roller bags and a couple of duffles for a week away. JBL audio, cruise control, automatic wipers, and collision avoidance systems are available.

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Plus the unmistakable look is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. We love it.

I couldn’t prepare myself for the driving experience. A new turbocharged three-cylinder engine delivers 89 horsepower to the rear wheels — enough to touch 96 mph and give it much deeper lungs when hustling freeways. You can finally get a traditional 5-speed manual transmission, but the 6-speed dual clutch automatic would be my choice as it now clicks through gears rather than lunging through them. Fuel economy of 33/39-MPG city/hwy is OK for a non-hybrid.

Underneath, engineers refined the rear suspension and developed a version of the Mercedes C-Class’ for the front. Combine that with a wider stance, and the car rumbles over bumps without crash-banging and can be tossed into corners without feeling tipsy. Electronic stability control and Crosswind assist stand by just in case. Don’t worry about safety; the ForTwo was crash-tested against the Mercedes C- and S-Class sedans.

Look, I’m a nerd who would not recommend a Smart to everybody. It’s, um, unique. I knew what I was getting into, don’t mind my car’s quirky personality, and appreciate how easy it is to park and store. And while I’m not selling mine anytime soon, the new model is much better. Dramatically improved handling, power and interior space should find a much wider audience while keeping early adopters adopting. I look forward to my next one.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 15, 2016.

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