Test Drive the Smart Car: The Savings are Surprising

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I had never been nervous about receiving a vehicle to test drive. Until now.

For one, would I fit? And would it be safe? Two questions that weighed on me when I took on the task of reviewing a Brabus Smart ForTwo CDI.

I was shocked at how small the Smart appeared. However, after pulling it up next to another car, you realize it's not that tiny. In fact, the Smart ForTwo is taller than most automobiles and its width isn't much narrower than the average car. The explanation for the car's petit appearance is its length -- the severe drop-off behind the passenger compartment -- and golf-cart tires.

Surprisingly, I managed to fit inside quite well, even better than my current daily driver. This finding was echoed by several people I picked up throughout testing. But don't plan on going cross-country in this bugger unless you pack light.

Now, more importantly, let's get into the drive train and diesel technology. After reviewing some of Audi's latest clean diesel technology, I was expecting more of the same: a smooth engine, quick pickup and no fumes. I was sorely mistaken. The Brabus CDI was more of a traditional diesel: chattery, slow and the interior had a bit of a diesel-esque odor. Actually, the scent made me quite nostalgic of my grandfather's farm equipment in the Catskills.

When accelerating, there was no putrid, black smoke, but between the turbo whistle and engine note, the ForTwo CDI will make anyone believe there is a tyrannical 18-wheeler closely following. Picture a Chihuahua barking like a pit-bull -- it is peculiar.

What the Smart CDI lacks is power. It is equipped with an inline 3-cylinder producing 40 horsepower and 74 pound-feet of torque. Although the car was set up by Brabus, known for tuning your average Mercedes-Benz into a 600-horsepower monster, the ForTwo hit 0 to 60 miles per hour in 19.8 seconds. Merging on to the New York and New Jersey highways made for an entertaining 20 seconds. Break out your sundials and a prayer sheet.

Knowing that acceleration was lacking, I wasn't confident on the highway. Then I discovered how much third and fourth gear pulled. Before you knew it, I was blasting past anything that moved. Above 65 mph, the Smart is a blast. However, concentration must be given to the road because the unforgiving suspension and small tires will jolt you harshly.

Probably the most fun aspect of the Brabus Smart was the transmission. Considered a six-speed sequential automated manual, it is technically a manual transmission. But there's no clutch. The driver is given the option to shift VIA paddles behind the steering wheel or the shifter. The paddles made it difficult to time the feathering of the throttle in order to stabilize the jerkiness of the shifts. Stick to the shifter. Automatic mode worked rather well, keeping shifts smooth and letting the car utilize the most of its limited torque.

The Smart CDI has an overwhelming sense of character, although some aspects have been compromised. The name of the game is miles per gallon, which the clean diesel annihilated. During my weekend with the vehicle, I tallied a mind-boggling 57.8 mpg.

Curious as to what a normal Smart had to offer, I made sure to get some seat time. The U.S. Smart boasts 70 horsepower alongside 68 pound-feet of torque. Compared to the diesel variant, this car was a rocket ship, doing 0-60 in 12.8 seconds. The catch: mileage drops to 33 in the city and 40 on the highway.

Here's the kicker: The Smart ForTwo CDI has yet to be offered in the U.S., although that is probably a good thing considering its pitfalls. While I learned to appreciate the vehicle's personality and shortfalls, I am confident the average consumer would shun the diesel variant.

What will be interesting is the introduction of an electric Smart. A source, wishing to remain anonymous, claimed it will arrive on our shores within several years.

So, the takeaway? If you are looking for a fun, small car to get around town, the gasoline Smart is more than capable of limiting gas guzzling. Had a diesel Smart been offered stateside, it would have more than likely irritated you with its traditional diesel characteristics and ubiquitous odor. Unless, of course, you have a lot of room in your heart and approximately $15,000 to take care of import fees.

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