How the Smart Car Works


­With gas prices at historic highs in the United States and fuel-efficient cars in vogue, the time might be perfect for DaimlerChrysler to introduce the Smart Car to U.S. markets. Already popular in Europe, the Smart Car is small in stature but big on economy. The updated Smart Fortwo (named because it's "for two" people) is ready for release in 2008, so we could be seeing a lot more Smart Cars on the road in the near future.

The Smart Car began with Nicolas Hayek, the man who invented Swatch watches. He wanted to make a small car that would be fuel efficient, environmentally responsible and easy to park in small spaces. The Swatch Company collaborated with Daimler-Benz (after a failed venture with Volkswagen) to create the first City Coupe under the company name Micro Compact Car (MCC). Development began in 1994, and the first car was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997. The MCC went on sale the following year, but Hayek was disappointed with the use of a conventional engine -- he'd wanted a hybrid or pure electric motor -- and the price of the car, which was higher than expected. When initial sales were slow, Swatch pulled out of the partnership, leaving Daimler-Benz (now DaimlerChrysler) full owner of the Smart division. Today, Smart is part of DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes group.

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When you see the Smart Car, the first thing that you notice is its size. The City Coupe (renamed the "Fortwo" once Smart began releasing other models), is only 8 feet, 2.5 inches long, less than 5 feet wide and about 5 feet tall. (In comparison, the original Hummer H1 is over 7 feet wide.) That means that instead of parallel parking in line with other cars, a Smart Car can back right up to the curb. Two or three Smart Cars can park that way in a single curbside parking space.

In the next sections, we'll look at what that small size means in terms of safety and gas mileage.

Smart Car Safety

The Smart Fortwo's Tridion steel safety shell
The Smart Fortwo's Tridion steel safety shell

The Smart Car has a unique appearance -- it looks almost like a cube on wheels, with the front edge trimmed down. However, that high length-to-width ratio helps the Fortwo corner with a greater degree of stability. The Smart Car's designers also gave it a three-cylinder engine that provides enough power because the car only weighs about 1500 pounds (the updated version of the Fortwo, slated for a 2008 release, will have different stats). It's easily one of the lightest four-wheeled vehicles on the road.

One of the major problems with very small, light automobiles is that they can be unsafe in a collision. The Smart solution is the Tridion steel safety shell. This hemispherical steel "cage" encloses the interior of the car and also forms the bulk of the Smart's chassis. A small energy-absorbing crumple zone at the front of the car lessens impacts, and the engine lives in the trunk of the car instead of the front. While a 1,500-lb. car will never be as safe for the occupants as a larger vehicle, the Tridion shell holds up remarkably well in crash tests. A 70 mph crash test conducted by British TV show "Top Gear" revealed that the Smart Fortwo's body remained mostly intact when compared to that of a conventional subcompact car. A sudden deceleration from 70 mph will cause injury of the occupants in just about any vehicle.

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The Tridion frame also provides a distinct element of style to the Smart Car. Most of the frame shows through to the outside of the car. The rest of the Smart's body comprises replaceable, recyclable body panels. They are so easy to change that Smart owners can quickly change the color of their car when they get tired of one color scheme.

Smart Car Features and Gas Mileage

Smart Fortwo Cabrio Pure
Smart Fortwo Cabrio Pure

The Smart Fortwo comes in several variations, along with a few limited edition versions. Most of the versions differ only in terms of the body shape and comfort features in the interior.

The Smart Fortwo seats two with enough room in back for some groceries. It comes in a coupe version with a solid roof and a cabrio version with a retractable canvas roof. Each body style comes in three different models: Pure, Pulse and Passion. These reflect an increase in luxury features such as a leather-covered steering wheel, a glass roof, air conditioning and a better stereo system. Only the Pure, the low-end model, is available with a 50-horsepower engine. All three are available with a 61-horsepower engine. The Pure and the Pulse are equipped with the Softip transmission system. While technically a manual transmission, the clutch isn't required. Drivers shift with a tap of the shift lever, although some reports indicate this system creates lag between shifts. The Passion comes equipped with the Softouch system, an automatic transmission.

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The interior of the Smart Fortwo Coupe Pure
The interior of the Smart Fortwo Coupe Pure

Both the 50- and 61-hp engines are three cylinder engines, with cooled turbochargers. According to Smart, the 61-hp engine can go from zero to 60 mph in about 15 seconds, while top speed is electronically limited to 84 mph for the driver's safety. (Cars as small and light as the Fortwo become very unstable at high speeds.) In city driving, the Fortwo gets a reported 46.3 mpg, while highway driving is an even more impressive 68.9 mpg. The 50-hp engine accelerates more slowly, but the electronic speed limit is the same, and the mpg ratings are the same as well.

All Fortwos also come with the following handling and safety features:

  • esp® (Electronic Stability Program) with Hill Start Assist
  • Anti-lock Braking System with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD)
  • Acceleration Skid Control (ASC)
  • Electronic Brake Assist
  • Dual-circuit brake system with servo assistance
  • Disc brakes at front, drum brakes at rear

Other Mercedes Smart Cars

Cutaway view of the Smart Roadster
Cutaway view of the Smart Roadster

In addition to the Fortwo varieties, Smart has also sold a Smart Roadster and the Forfour, a more conventional vehicle that seats four. Disappointing sales led to the end of the Forfour line in 2005, but Smart may still sell Forfours in the United States. Plans for a Smart SUV (the Formore) indicate that the pint-sized 4 x 4 will be produced in Brazil, with half of all Formores built intended for the U.S. market [ref].

Smart Roadster Coupe
Smart Roadster Coupe

Smart has also partnered with Mercedes tuning company BRABUS to produce several BRABUS-edition cars. The BRABUS Fortwo features a 74-hp engine, but the extra weight added by BRABUS body styling and interior features mean this version actually accelerates more slowly than a Pulse or Passion Fortwo (the speed governor remains at 84 mph). The BRABUS three-spoke steering wheel has push-button gear shifters. The BRABUS Black Star Fortwo will boost the hp up to 101. Mercedes will produce only 101 units of the limited edition car [ref]. BRABUS is also producing exclusive Fourfour and exclusive Roadster editions.

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Smart Roadster BRABUS
Smart Roadster BRABUS

Smart Car Competitors

2007 Toyota Yaris
2007 Toyota Yaris

The Smart Fortwo isn't the only car in the super-small, super-efficient category. Let's see how it stacks up to similar vehicles on the market.

The 2006 Toyota Prius has more horsepower in both its four-cylinder gas engine (76 hp) and its electric motor (67 hp). It can also take advantage of the massive amount of torque provided by an electric motor. The EPA mileage figures for the 2004 Prius were 60 mpg in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway, which gives the Prius the advantage in the city. Reports for upcoming versions of the Prius estimate it could achieve mpg numbers above 110 [ref]. The Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) on a 2006 Prius 4-door is $21,725.

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The 2007 Toyota Yaris is slightly larger, heavier and faster than the Fortwo, and costs less at about $17,000 for a fully-featured version. However, it suffers in the mileage department with EPA ratings of 34 and 39 mpg in city and highway driving.

Honda's 2007 Fit is comparable to the Yaris, again slightly larger and faster than the Fortwo, with mpg ratings just below that of the Yaris, and a base MSRP of about $15,000.

2006 Mini Cooper
2006 Mini Cooper

The Mini Cooper, previously the smallest car sold in the United States, weighs more than a thousand pounds more than the Fortwo, and the fuel efficiency numbers aren't very impressive: 23 mpg city and 32 highway for the automatic version. With a base MSRP of about $20,000 for the 2006, Cooper owners are paying for style instead of efficiency.

Overall, the Fortwo is probably the most fuel-efficient four-wheeled vehicle with a conventional gasoline engine on the market. It can't currently compare to the mpg numbers of a hybrid, and it's more expensive than just about any other subcompact available today, but it has a distinctive, attention-grabbing design and is certainly easier to park than anything except a motorcycle.

Smart Cars in the U.S.

Gauging the potential market success of Smart Fortwos in the U.S. market is difficult. Even in Europe, where parking and petrol (or gasoline) come at a premium, initial sales were slow, but eventually the Smart brand became a success. More than 750,000 Fortwos have sold in Europe, Japan] and other countries.

The U.S. market has not been overly friendly to ultra-efficient vehicles in recent years, but that has been slowly changing as gas prices have increased. Waiting lists for Prius models and the success of Toyota's Scion line suggest that American drivers are ready for small, efficient and distinctive cars. Previous subcompacts have carried fuel economy over into design economy, resulting in drab, generic cars. The Smart is likely to have greater success in Canada, where sales of the Toyota Echo far exceeded U.S. sales figures.

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While the Smart's flashy but diminutive image might work in its favor, many American drivers like their vehicles big. Pickup trucks are top sellers nationwide, and SUVs and Hummers are the top luxury vehicles. To increase the car's profile among American consumers, Smart has paid to have Fortwos present at several major events, including the New York and Boston Marathons [ref]. The main characters in "The Da Vinci Code" used a Smart Car extensively, and it had a starring role in the film's trailer as well.

The biggest drawback for Smart dealers is its price. Depending on the version and features included, the price for a U.S.-modified Fortwo currently ranges from $25,500 to $35,500 [ref]. Buyers seeking fuel efficiency are often also seeking bank account efficiency, and they can find a small car with decent mileage for several thousand dollars less than the cost of a Fortwo.

There are already some Smart Cars available for sale in the United States. Independent importers brought them in on the gray market (they bought the cars and shipped them into the United States for resale). The practice isn't illegal in most countries, but it isn't approved by the car's manufacturer either. DaimlerChrysler will introduce the car officially in 2008, with the next generation Fortwos selling through the UnitedAuto Group of dealerships. Dealership rollouts and brand marketing should begin as early as mid-2007 [ref].

For lots more information on the Smart Car and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Aoki, Naomi. "Smart's running start Tiny auto debuts locally as official car of marathon." Boston Globe, April 14, 2004. http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2004/04/14/Smarts_running_start/
  • Lyon, Peter. "Prius hits 113 mpg." April 4, 2006. http://www.autoexpress.co.uk/news/autoexpressnews/66260/ prius_hits_113mpg.html
  • "Smart fortwo Buyer's Guide." Car Pages. http://www.carpages.co.uk/guide/Smart/Smart-fortwo-guide.asp
  • "Smart Vehicles Go USA - UnitedAuto Group Selected as Future Exclusive Distributor." http://www.daimlerchrysler.com/dccom/­0-5-7145-1-622018-1-0-0-0-0-0-9-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0.html
  • "Spy Shot: Smart formore."Channel4.com. http://www.channel4.com/4car/gallery/gallery.jsp?id=1053&page=4
  • Smart.com http://www.Smart.com/
  • SmartUSA.com http://www.Smartusa.com/
  • "Top Gear" Smart Car crash test video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju6t-yyoU8s
  • "ZAP Smart car Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)." ZapWorld. http://www.zapworld.com/cars/SmartCar.asp#FAQ
  • "BRABUS Black Star 101: The Ultimate Smart Fortwo Convertible with 101 hp / 74 kW." Brabus.com http://www.brabus.de/news/news59e.htm