In 2008, Mercedes re-did its iconic Smart fortwo, and wisely deep-sixed the wonky three-cylinder diesel engine while introducing the car to American buyers for the first time. Appropriately, the launch was held in California's Silicon Valley.
Replacing the troublesome diesel was another three-cylinder powerplant, but gasoline-fuelled this time, with 70 horsepower on tap. The new engine was co-designed by Mitsubishi, and was mated to the Smart's familiar five-speed sequential automatic transmission, with a manual shift feature.
It made the newest generation of Smart livelier and less wonky than its predecessor, but it still retained a lurchy and abrupt power delivery. Better than before, but still not the most relaxing car to drive. If you had the nerve, the new Smart would also touch 160 km/h, and more than kept up with traffic, with a surprisingly stable highway ride.
The re-styling job was modest, and more of a tweak than an all-out overhaul. Designers smoothed out the rough edges and the car didn't look as stunted as before. But it was still instantly recognizable and featured a 2.9-metre total length – short enough to park head-on into the curb and not interfere with traffic, assuming law enforcement personnel would let you get away with this manoeuvre, which they probably wouldn't. There was 220 litres of cargo room behind the driver, but this was still strictly a two-seater, designed to carry people, not their possessions.
The made-in-France Smart fortwo came in two body styles in 2008: hardtop coupe and convertible. The latter had a canvas top that could be manually deployed in two different positions: all the way back and a halfway "drophead" configuration.
Standard equipment included power windows, central locking, CD player, and power tailgate release. You could also order options such as air conditioning ,additional instrumentation, heated seats and a "panoramic" sunroof on the hardtop version. There were three models: Pure, Passion, and Passion Cabriolet.
With fuel economy ratings of 5.9 litres/100 km in town, and a thrifty 4.8 litres/100 km on the highway, the new Smart was touted as saving its owners more than $1,000 a year in gas, at current prices. It also qualified for up to $2,000 in fuel economy rebates, but that doesn't apply to used models, and it also requires premium grade gas.
Just one safety recall to report and it comes from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to this organization, there are issues with a certain batch of paint for a few models of this year of Smart fortwo. While that may seem trivial, it can apparently lead to the delamination of body panels and the windshield could separate itself from the rest of the car, which would not be good. NHTSA also has a couple of technical service bulletins on file, but they are just minor labelling issues.
Consumer Reports doesn't much care for this little European city car and gives the car its worst possible used car prediction rating. "The car is very slow when starting from a stop," it complains. "It has a harsh ride, clumsy handling, and an automated manual transmission that has the worst gear shift quality we've experienced."
Comments from owners are surprisingly positive, however, and some say that the magazine gave the Smart unfair treatment. "Parks like a dream!" enthuses one owner. "The herky-jerky transmission is fine," says another, and the Smart's remarkable fuel economy is praised right across the board. For the most part though, its rough ride and transmission is condemned.
Market research company J.D. Power, meanwhile, voted the 2009 version of the Smart fortwo as its "most appealing subcompact car" for this year. There are no real differences between the '09 and '08 models and this organization doesn't give the '09 a predicted reliability rating. It does, however, rate its overall performance and design as "about average."
These days, you can expect to pay anywhere from about $8,500 to the mid-$12,000s for a three-year-old Smart fortwo. The Cabriolet is pricier by a couple of thousand than the Coupe, and the base Pure version is the cheapest of all.
2008 Smart fortwo
Original Base Price: $14,990; Black Book: $8,625-$12,225; Red Book: $8,675-$12,325
Engine: 999-cc three-cylinder
Horsepower/Torque: 70 hp/68 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with manual shift
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 5.9 city/4.8 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Mini Cooper, Toyota Yaris, Mercedes-Benz B200