Test Drive: 2017 Smart Fortwo Prime

Think of the Smart car as mobile urban jewellery. It exists to both move you and complement your image. The 2017 Smart Fortwo Prime – with its devilish sneer and aggressive downward stance, a tongue-in-cheek bold look like a toddler in biker leathers – is a nose ring for your driveway.

If all those solo commuters in SUVs and crossovers were in a Smart car, it’d cut traffic by, what, 50 percent?

Mind, if you have a Smart Fortwo Prime, you probably don’t have a driveway. Call it a nose ring for your condo’s parking spot, maybe, or limited available street parking spaces. Which leads to the first of three main reasons you’d consider buying it.

Reason #1: City parking

The Fortwo is just 2,695 mm (8.84 feet) long and 1,663 (5.46 feet) wide. For perspective, the Nissan Micra, a car so small it almost fits in its own glove compartment, is 3.71 feet longer. So it’s almost as easy to park your Smart car as your Vespa but the Smart does far better in a crash.

The Smart’s also a really good choice for city dwellers leaving their precious parking spots to ferry themselves between As and Bs. The minute turning circle of 6.95 m is highly practical at this (construction) time of year. Sudden jam? You can 180-degree it out of there with one maneuver, none of these seven-point turns you see rude soccer moms on the phone imposing on the rest of us. We’ll talk more about the Smart’s drive experience a little later.

Reason #2: Yes, two

It’s called Fortwo for a functional reason. There are only two of you, maximum, who will ever be in it. And that is not most of us. A vast swath of modern drivers tell marketers they want a vehicle that is practical, which for them means they can take others (plural) away for the odd weekend – and the Smart can’t do that.

Next time you’re stuck in urban traffic that’s slowing to the rhythm of a government-contracted construction crew and have nothing to do but fume and suck fumes, count all the surrounding vehicles with a single driver. If all those solo commuters in SUVs and crossovers were in a Smart car, it’d cut traffic by, what, 50 percent?

So maybe this second reason for the Smart as a primary car would be the first to consider it as a second car. Something that renders decent mileage and sneaks places other cars can’t to be driven all those times you’re not going away with others for the weekend. You could almost park it in your Nissan Armada.

Reason #3: That aforementioned nose ring factor

If you buy a Smart car, you have decided you want people to look at you driving it.

To mug a metaphor, it makes a bold fashion statement, but in superscripted type. This third reason for most buyers makes the first for why many others would not buy it – but they’ve probably stopped reading by now.

So let’s talk a bit more about the looks of the Smart Fortwo Prime and some of the bling-y extras this loaner came with. The base version Smart starts at $17,300 before taxes, destination charges or extras, which sounds cheap till you consider the genuinely sexy Nissan Micra starts at $9,988 and a packed-to-the-gills-with-features Chevrolet at $9,995.

The Prime trim I drove starts at $20,900, but adds a touch of outward flair with black accents, halogen headlights with a welcome function, fog lights in the bottom front corners like boar tusks, white side indicators and striking LED taillights.

Inside, you’re treated to a well-designed capsule: spare but cozy. Mimicking the circular design ethic that is such a part of its Teutonic rival Mini, a clock and vents are spherical baubles fitted into and onto the dash, micro-reflections of this larger glass, metal and plastic bubble you’re sitting in.

The fitted fabric covering much of the interior’s plastics adds a charming contrast and dampens what little noise seeps through (not much from the engine). The passenger seat folds forward almost fully. The height-adjustable driver’s seat is simple but comfortable and well-formed. Both seats are leather covered and also heated, though sadly not the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Claustrophobes rejoice. Every cubic inch is carefully planned with nothing going to waste, from the trinket ledge crossing the passenger’s half of the dash, to cached storage compartments beneath the centre stack and within the tailgate. Single cupholders between the seats sit at opposite ends of the centre console.

There’s good headroom and you can heighten the seat. The effect can be like driving a Johnny-on-the-spot but it’s comforting to see much of what’s going on around you. Overhead you can slide back the cloth blind and allow the sun to pour in from the panoramic skylight. It broadens the sense of space but sadly doesn’t open (if it did, you’d practically have a cabriolet).

Back outside, the body panel colour’s not battleship but titania grey, presumably an ironic derivation of another sea-faring adjective rarely associated with a Smart car review. But the paint has a charming matte finish (a $495 option), which suggests stealth, adding more juice to its hilariously aggressive styling. Like those snotty Jack Russell terriers you see getting in the face of dogs thrice their size, they look funny – until you see one shredding a rat. Which leads to the quality of the actual drive.

Frustrating first, then fun to drive.

The engine is located in the back of the Smart car. So pop the hood and you’re in for a surprise. First of all, it’s not so much a hood as much as an emasculating Tupperware lid that you pry from plastic clips. The corollary of this unique layout is a rear-wheel drive, which is just plain fun to drive.

The fun is bolstered by a surprising touch of kick at low levels – with a curb weight of just 965 kg and 100 lb-ft of torque at 2,500 rpm, you get some launch – but watch out. The move between gears, whether you’re shifting yourself in sport mode (the “twinamic” six-speed DCT is an extra $1,400) or the automatic transmission is engaged, can lurch if you’re accelerating hard. That three-cylinder engine achieves just 89 ponies at 5,500 cycles. Ease back or the effect is a bizarre hurl-tug-hurl-tug lurching. You become like your own little nose-ringed conga line. If you have a passenger, they will not be impressed. (If you have two passengers, you can be arrested.)

If you can drive gently at first to prevent the lurching, the minute engine will not be a problem. When you’re in the higher gears, cruising on a thoroughfare, the ride is remarkably different. You’re reminded that this is the scion, so to speak, or Mercedes-Benz. The engine loves to be in the 70 to 100 km/h range. Here, too, the zipping in and out of traffic is a treat. The speed-sensitive steering gives you very good accuracy. You can invent spaces that simply don’t exist for standard-sized cars.

The Smart is light – but it’s also a little fortress...

Like the spherical capsule C3PO and R2D2 escaped the Imperial Suburban in. I love how it looks. Between the minuscule turning circle and RWD, I love how it manoeuvres (especially at mid to higher speeds) and parks, but have a problem getting past the price. The Smart Prime is not expensive when compared to its sister Mercedes-Benz models, but to its competitors, like the bella Fiat 500 or increasingly cool Nissan Micra it’s quite a jump.

2017 Smart Fortwo Prime
Engine Displacement: 0.898L
Engine Cylinders: 3
Peak Horsepower: 89 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Peak Torque: 100 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Fuel Economy: 7.5/6.1/6.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 190 L
articles_PricingType 2017 Smart Fortwo Prime
Base Price $20,900
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,295
Price as Tested $27,785
Optional Equipment $5,490 – Twinamic 6-speed DCT $1,400; Body panels in Titania Grey $495; Touchscreen Package $1,295; Brabus Sports Package $2,300
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.9
10 Styling
6 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
8 Practicality
8 Drivability
9 Usability/Ergonomics
9 Fuel Economy
7 Features
6 Value