Wednesday, July 13, 2011

2011 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet review

The Smart Fortwo minicar came to the US in 2008, and I think most Americans -- myself included -- didn't quite know what to make of it. For 2011, Smart has given the Fortwo a very minor makeover. The cosmetic changes to the front fascia and instrument panel are almost impossible to spot, but the functional changes are much more noticeable: Knee airbags for all models, side-curtain airbags for coupes, and options like integrated navigation and (finally!) cruise control.

Lots to like
Skeptical as I was about the last Smart I drove, I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this one. Not that it was love at first site; my first day of driving felt like a mobile prison sentence. But with each passing day I got used to the Smart's foibles and found myself looking for excuses to drive it. By the end of my test week, I was reluctant to give it up.

What did I like about the Smart? For one thing, the Cabriolet version I drove is the least-expensive convertible sold in the US. For $18,400 -- same as a decently-equipped Honda Civic -- you get an open-top car with air conditioning and an automatic transmission. The Smart's convertible roof slides back like a giant sunroof (link goes to photo) and then folds into a bundle at the rear of the car (where it blocks half the view in the rear-view mirror). Getting the full convertible effect requires manually removing the side rails, but it's an easy job and they store neatly inside the trunk lid. One advantage to leaving the roof rails in place is that you can open and close the top at any speed -- something no other convertible I know of can do. And because the Fortwo Cabriolet is so small and so stiff, it doesn't suffer from the chassis flex that plagues most convertibles.

More likes: The Smart's tiny size makes for unbelievable maneuverability, and I loved being able to parallel-park in half-size spots -- you know, those otherwise useless gaps left by people who aren't courteous enough to pull up close to the car in front. Thanks to the tall driving position, the Smart doesn't feel nearly as tiny as it looks from the outside. Acceleration from the 70 hp 3-cylinder engine is quicker than you might expect, and it makes a cool growly sound when you rev it. The Fortwo grips the road pretty well, and standard electronic stability control ensures things won't get too far out of hand.

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