Smart's Lilliputian fortwo rolled into Milwaukee's spiffy Smart Center at Hwy. 45 and Good Hope Rd during 2008. Ironically, there's a former Hummer test track in front. Gries Architectural Group (Neenah Wisconsin) designed the green-theme, LEED-certified, five-story-tower structure.
John Bergstrom, the store's owner, says they've delivered more than 400 Smarts. His enthusiastic staff behave like thoughtful travel agents. After my brief Smart fortwo passion coupe test drive (everything is lower case at smart), I had reservations.
The car's mechanical layout is intriguing. There's a rear-mounted, three-cylinder, 1.0-liter engine. Despite its golf-cart length, the Smart weighs a substantial 1800 lbs. The engine produces 70 hp and 68 lb-ft of torque, both @ 5800 rpm. Top speed is 90 mph; it charges to 60 mph in about 13 seconds; drinks premium fuel. EPA estimates: 33 mpg city and 41 hwy.
Despite the numbers, the Smart comes up short. Its biggest deficit: the buggy's clutch-peddle free "smartshift." It's a sluggish, five-speed, sequential manual transmission that responds to throttle or paddle shifters like a dial-up modem.
Inside the whimsical interior, one sits in high chairs. The power steering is neither crisp nor well weighted. Stability control is standard. The noisy vehicle wiggles on the highway. Engine roar ranges from nasty grunts to a chain-saw staccato buzz. Height, glass and mass mask its diminutive size. Prices: about $13,000 (entry-level "pure") to $17,000 (cheeky convertible). For 2010, Smart adds a sport-tuned Barbus trim level.
Compared with the feisty Mini, the fidgety Smart makes the former an oxymoron. Yet the latter is funky, solves parking problems and fills runabout niches. An intelligent alternative, however, is a front-drive compact.