PORTLAND, OR – The Smart, since its inception, has been marketed as a premium urban car. It’s ultra-compact dimensions make it a cinch to park just about anywhere and it can squirt through the slightest gaps in city traffic.
The fact that this funky little two-seater lacked enough power to go comfortably beyond the city limits and that its manumatic transmission was such a clunky affair seemed to matter little to its owners. Who cared if it was wheezy on the highway?
Apparently the Smart engineers charged with developing the 2016 iteration did – and they have made significant changes to address those issues.
The Smart's petite external dimensions have been retained in this all-new, third-generation model, but the revisions and upgrades made for 2016 have resulted in a city car that’s now equally capable of cruising highways comfortably.
For starters, the little three-banger buried in the trunk has been given more muscle. The 898cc, three-cylinder engine now pumps out 89 horsepower and 100 lb-ft of torque, thanks to the addition of a turbocharger and direct fuel injection.
That output may not sound impressive, but it is a significant for this 931-kilogram two-seater when compared with the previous generation’s 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque. Given that model's 820-kg mass, the power-to-weight ratio is 26% greater for the new model.
The transmission concerns have been resolved with the introduction of a new six-speed, dual-clutch automatic, as well as a new standard gearbox, a five-speed manual with hill-hold assist.
With the manual powertrain, the Smart can launch from 0-to-100 km/h in 10.7 seconds; with the automatic, it takes 11.1 seconds – about a two-second improvement over the 2015 Smart. Fuel consumption ratings have not yet been completed.
Forget the paddles
The Smarts I drove during a two-day media preview here in America’s greenest city were all fitted with the six-speed Twinamic auomatic. In the top-of-the-line Prime trim level, it comes with paddle shifters, as well as the standard shift level mounted on the centre console.
Using the paddle shifters, however, won’t hold the selected gear for long, with the tranny kicking back into automatic mode if additional shifts aren’t quickly requested.
I also found the automatic wasn’t quite sure which gear to hold onto when crawling in rush-hour traffic – it shifted back and forth, hunting for the appropriate ratio and at times its choice was announced with a hearty clunk. In normal driving conditions, however, the new transmission’s performance was fine.
The media drive routes covered Portland streets as well as long highway stretches through scenic state parkland along the Columbia River. With the new Smart’s additional power, its robust little engine had no problem generating enough juice to dart in and out on the congested downtown streets.
What was surprising, however, was its ability to also cruise comfortably at highway speeds. There was even enough power in reserve to safely pass a struggling logging truck on one two-lane stretch of highway.
A new platform, developed in conjunction with Renault (for that brand's Twingo model), forms the foundation for the new Smart, which is built in France. It incorporates improvements to the suspension system, including a new front axle design, and a 10-centimetre increase in the car’s track.
By pushing the wheels out further, the handling characteristics have been improved significantly. The car responded like a go-kart winding through several twisty sections on our drive route, cutting into the corners crisply and staying well planted as I pushed it through the turns. It was pure fun.
On the highway, it felt very stable and wasn’t bothered by passing big rigs. To ensure stability is maintained on windy days, the Smart is now equipped with a cross-wind assist system, as well as stability control.
The ride was certainly comfortable on the highway, although with its short wheelbase the Smart had trouble smoothing out the bumps and ruts of urban streets.
Safety has been a key element of Smart since its inception and that trait continues with the 2016 iteration. Standard features include eight airbags, brake assist, anti-lock brakes, crosswind assist and stability control, plus the cage-like Tridon cell structure comprised of 72% high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel. The previous Smart’s safety cell structure was 47% high-strength steel.
One of the most amazing features of the new Smart is its ability to turn around in tight spaces. While the car has always been nimble, thanks to its compact size, the turning capabilities of the new smart have been tightened even more – it can complete a U-turn in less than seven metres. In fact, it feels like the car can almost swing around in its own length.
On a tight two-lane road along a scenic ridge above the city, I was able to make a U-turn without touching the shoulders. Impressive, indeed.
The quick, precise electric-assisted power steering and tight turning circle also make it a snap to park.
More mature look
Changes to the exterior and interior of the 2016 Smart are significant, yet the original character of the car has been retained. The exterior styling has a more mature, more aggressive look than its predecessor.
The front end is all new, with a honeycomb upper grille that’s available in a choice of three colours – black, white or silver. The new lower air intake grille is black.
The headlight assemblies are new as well, with LED daytime running lights standard. The tail lights on the Prime trim level are also LED units.
A roof-lip spoiler is built into the rear liftgate, which opens in two sections – the glass flips up and the lower section folds out. A distinct character line draws across the larger doors to the cabin.
The standard alloy wheels are 15-inchers, although 16-inch rims are available with the $800 Sport package.
The exterior colour palette offers 30 possible finishes, including matte, and two-tone combinations, giving owners the opportunity to personalize their Smart.
Upgrades to the interior have given the cabin a warmer feel. The instrument panel and door panels are more sculpted than the current generation and feature a mesh fabric covering that reminds one of the material used in sneakers. Unique indeed.
A 3.5-inch driver information screen is centred in the gauge cluster in front of the driver, while a 7.0-inch colour touch screen is the focal point of the centre stack. Strangely, the tachometer is mounted on a pedestal beside the A-pillar, putting it well out of the driver’s line of sight.
The audio system features smartphone integration and an optional cradle is available. Smart has developed a new Cross Connect app that works with both iPhones and Android smartphones.
We used a beta version of the app and frankly, I hope it gets some additional fine-tuning before it’s offered to the public. The navigation system was slow to refresh and tardy in informing of upcoming directions. I made a lot of U-turns as a result. In some cases, the directional information was completely wrong.
The cabin, while it may look small from the outside, is remarkably roomy. There’s plenty of headroom and despite the fact my driving partner and I are both on the large size, we never bumped elbows. In fact, as long as you didn’t look behind you, you’d think you were sitting in a compact sedan. (Of course, looking behind revealed there’s nothing but the cargo hatch in back of the seats.)
I do have two issues with the new interior. Although the new contoured sport seats are very comfortable, I found it difficult to nail down a suitable driving position because there’s no tilt or telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel.
The other problem is the footwell, which isn’t wide enough to accommodate both feet, and the resulting positioning of the dead pedal meant I had to bend my leg significantly at the knee to use it. That leg position put my kneecap in direct contact with the power mirror adjustment knob.
My driving partner and I both were stumped as to why the mirrors were requiring frequent readjustment – until we noticed the knob was being activated unknowingly whenever our knees nudged it.
The Smart's cargo capacity of 350 litres, while limited compared to competitive vehicles, is an increase of 10 litres from the previous model.
We were able to stuff in a couple of carry-on-sized roller bags, a backpack and a large computer shoulder bag, but that pushed the available space in the rear hatch to about its limit.
There is no storage space behind the seatbacks, unless the seats are well forward on their tracks. The passenger seatback does fold forward to add some additional space and versatility for larger cargo, but obviously you’ll be driving alone.
Three trim levels
The car is offered in three trim levels – the base Pure ($17,300 with manual transmission), mid-range Passion ($18,800) which is expected to be the volume sales leader, and the premium Prime ($20,900.)
The 2016 Smart goes on sale Sept. 18. A cabriolet version, to be introduced at the upcoming Frankfurt auto show, as well as an all-electric Smart, are expected to join the lineup by late next year.
Model: 2016 Smart ForTwo Coupe
Price (with manual transmission): Pure, $17,300; Passion, $18,800; Prime, $20,900
Engine: Turbocharged 898-cc three-cylinder with direct fuel injection; 89 horsepower @ 5,500 rpm, 100 lb-ft of torque @ 2,500.
Transmission: Six-speed, dual-clutch Twinamic; five-speed manual
Length: 2,690 mm
Width: 1,660 mm
Wheelbase: 1,873 mm
Competitors: Fiat 500 Pop, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio LX, Toyota Yaris hatchback, Honda Fit LX