COAL: 2015 smart ForTwo – Clown Car, Or Real Car?

a 2015 smart fortwo

The smart at home. Note the front discs fill the 15 inch wheels.

I’ll let you all answer the question, though I would encourage you not to pass final judgment until you experience a ForTwo in the flesh.

Life is full of unexpected turns. Witness, my becoming a smart owner (all lower case is correct in this application).

smart car logo

smart stands for Swatch+Mercedes+Art. Wikipedia has a good page on it, and I’ll let you read more history there.

The original Swatch car design

The original Swatch design

The idea started as a joint venture between Swatch and VW, then VW bailed on the Swatch-designed vehicle, and Mercedes joined in.

Swatch then left the party, but the name remained on the clean-sheet design that resulted in 1998 after Mercedes started over. My 2015 is the final year of the second generation, a W451 in Mercedes parlance. They are all built at a single factory in Hambach, France.

There have been two prior smart write-ups at CC, touching on a roadster I had never heard of, and the four passenger version, which I had heard of but which was never sold in the USA.

When I bought the 2016 Winnebago View from my parents, they also gave me all their “flat tow” gear, worth about $2,500.00. Flat towing is when you tow a car behind the motorhome, all four wheels down, no trailer or dolly.

You can flat tow anything with a stick shift, pretty much. You can also flat tow something like my Suburban, if it is four wheel drive and has a true neutral setting for the transfer case. Some people flat tow automatic equipped cars, with aftermarket equipment to pump the transmission fluid in the “toad” (as the towed vehicle is called) to protect it during the towing process.

I have read a lot of conflicting info online about the towing choices. A lot of people swear by flat towing as being the easiest overall. You have no trailer or dolly to store at home or at your destination. You don’t have to load the toad onto a trailer or dolly, and strap it down which can be an arduous task if done right. The flat tow equipment is pretty straightforward. You install a “plate” on the front frame rail ends of the toad, which has two attachment points. These points then connect to two articulating arms from the RV, off the hitch receiver.

On my recent 6,700 mile trip to from North Carolina to California and back, I paid attention to the RV’s passing me in the opposing direction. I have to say it was an equal mix of 1. no toad at all, 2. a flat towed toad, 3. a toad with one axle on a dolly, and 4. a toad up on a trailer, all four wheels off the ground.

My wife and I don’t have anything suitable to flat tow now, aside from the Suburban, which is too heavy to safely tow on a long trip with the View. Behind a Class A gas or diesel RV, the Suburban would be fine to tow. A relatively short, flat tow like to the beach from my house, would probably be OK.

The Smokies National Park

We recently went camping in Tennessee for a week, and hiked most days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is only about two hours from my house. My wife wanted to go over early to shop in the outlet stores. So, she drove on her own there the first morning in her 2016 Cayenne (the biggest lemon we have ever owned, need to write that one up), and met me at the campground that evening, so we also would have a car.

While we were sitting in a restaurant a couple of days later, we started talking about being able to use the RV more, with our youngest heading to college this Fall. We were talking about what to get to tow behind it for certain trips.

Something small, easy to park in the (sometimes) very crowded national parks, light, and easy to tow. And, we could use a “spare” car when all three kids are home from college, for around town use.

Fiat 500

The Fiat 500 came to mind,

A Mini Cooper

as well as a Mini. Outside the window, a smart ForTwo was waiting at a traffic light. Light bulb moment! We need a smart to flat tow.

I tried to do a little research from my phone. It appeared people were flat towing them, but they were automatics. I was confused and decided to research more on bigger screen. I also cautioned my wife that I just wasn’t sure how many smarts were out there to buy at all, since they were slow sellers and discontinued in the USA after the 2019 model year.

Turns out the first two generations use an automated five speed manual by Getrag. You can flat tow then by leaving them in neutral, turning the key off, and disconnecting the battery. It is a true manual with a clutch, but the computer and solenoids engage and disengage the clutch, as well as shift gears. It’s a more advanced version of the VW Autostick, sold from 1968 to 1976.

Maybe someone can tell us why smart would go the automated manual route, but I assume it is lighter and cheaper than a true automatic.

A smart car transmission

The automated manual, with the halfshafts exiting. At the bottom of the picture, you can make out a black box and rubber bellows; that is the solenoid for clutching and shifting gears

It looks about like a lawn tractor transmission under there. And, it can be driven by those who don’t want to shift. Even if you like to shift a stick, it can be a chore in city driving, and with the smart you just put it in “D” and give it gas. You can use the paddle shifters, or pull the gearshift leftwards into “sport” mode and shift manually if you like.

In addition to the ability to leave it in neutral, it weighs under 1800 pounds, about 600 pounds less than the Fiat and 1000 or more pounds less than a Mini Cooper.

I looked at the Blue Ox website (as I have Blue Ox flat tow equipment from my parents, there are other brands out there) and 2015 was the last smart model year with a tow plate available. There is no Blue Ox tow plate for the current 2016- version.

So, I needed a W451, second generation smart from the 2008 to 2015 USA model years. My local Mercedes dealers had none; CarMax had 15 in the entire nation!

I used Google to do more local research. There were quite a few smarts at local buy here, pay here lots, but most had high miles (90,000 or more). I found one good 2015 smart with miles in the teens from a private seller about 75 miles from me. He replied to my email right away, but then didn’t get back to me about when we could meet.

There were also the logistical problems of buying from any private seller, even if he had firmed up an appointment. Does it have a tag? Can I test drive it? Do I give him the money without getting the title in my hand first? I wouldn’t expect a seller to want to hand me the title without the money first, either. And, the fact that he never set up a time to view the car made me wonder if it was a scam.

a black smart car

A black “Pure” base model from the internet. An early model from the second generation. “Chickenhead” logo on the hood instead of in the grille.

So, after a couple of weeks of waiting on the private seller, back to CarMax I went. You can do a free seven day hold online with CarMax, no cost, no obligation. I held the best one of the fifteen for our purposes: a 2015 black “Pure” or base model smart like you see here, $8500.00, 26,000 miles, and transferable from Kentucky to my closest CarMax for $150.00. I figured that would give me a few days to keep looking and thinking.

The Pure is pretty much a stripper. This one had the optional A/C, but plastic wheel covers on steelies, crank windows, and vinyl/cloth seats. Perfect for what we wanted.

After a few days of thinking, and we decided to pay the transfer fee. I logged into my CarMax account and there was a “new arrival that fits your recent search”. It was as a white “Passion+Comfort” for a little more money, $9800.00, same year, but fewer miles, and a lot more equipment.

A 2015 Pure when new was just under $15,000.00. For just under $19,000.00, a 2015 Passion added A/C, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, body color mirrors, LED running lights, alloy wheels, fixed panel “sunroof” with manual sliding sunshade, and paddle shifters. The $1000 “Comfort” package on the new arrival added rain sensing wipers, heated seats, leather seats, electric power steering, a “roller shade” cargo cover, and odds and ends compartments behind the front seats.

The only options missing were cruise control, and a 7 speaker sound system with navigation.

It was at CarMax in Jacksonville, Florida, about 450 miles each way from my house. It was “not transferable”, which means they will not move it at any price to another CarMax. I don’t know how they decide whether to make this designation or not; I assume they think it can be sold easily enough where it is, so maybe it should stay put.

I could still do a free 7 day hold though, so I cancelled the hold on the black one in Kentucky (you can only have one hold at a time), and placed a hold on the white Florida car. At the end of the week, we drove to Jacksonville in the RV on Friday for a 4pm appointment to see the smart. Whether we bought it or not, we would spend the night at a local campground, and return home Saturday.

According to the CarFax (and then from examining all the registration materials sent to me by CarMax), it was a three year new car lease in Florida from Spring 2015 to Spring 2018, covering 5,000 miles. It was sold at auction by Mercedes-Benz Financial to a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Florida.

The second owner covered 13,000 additional miles in two years. The second owner traded it in to CarMax in Jacksonville about three weeks prior, whereupon we became the third owners at about 18,500 miles.

a smart and an RV at CarMax

The View and the smart ready to leave the lot at CarMax in Jacksonville, Florida

Accommodations are actually quite good for two, and a bit of luggage or shopping.

Ear view of a smart ForTwo

The rear glass (complete with wiper/washer and grid defroster), has a touch sensitive release pad up under the lip above the license plate.

a smart with the glass open

Once the glass is released, lift up, then pull the small latch at either end of the tailgate to lower it.

A Smart ForTwo trunk

The white plastic folder is the owner’s manual. The black plastic tailgate interior panel, opens upwards for hiding small items.

There’s plenty of room for a weekend’s worth of soft luggage for two, or a good deal of groceries.

view of a 2015 smart cabin

The front seats allow a generous amount of travel, and my 6’3″ sons can fit comfortably behind the wheel. I am 5’10”, and have to have the driver seat pulled up closer than the farthest setting for sure. The seatbelts have auto retraction in the event of a crash, and there are front airbags, knee airbags, curtain airbags above the side glass, and side airbags in the seatback side bolsters.

2015 smart gauge cluster

The gauge cluster has everything you need, and nothing you don’t, like an old Beetle. There are handy cubby areas to either side of the steering column for a wallet, phone, etc.

A smart car shifter and ignition

The key switch is between the seats just aft of the gearshift, a la Saab.

Front hood of a smart car open

There is a front “hood”, which smart calls a “service flap”. Under the flap is the coolant reservoir, brake fluid, and washer fluid. The radiator, condenser, and electric cooling fan also reside there. There is no provision for storage under the “hood”. There is a generously sized cabin filter, accessed under the driver side of the dash.

a smart fortwo roll cage

Like the rest of the body, the service flap is plastic and the color goes all the way through (all the white parts of my car are solid color plastic). The silver band you see is paint, and is the metal structure of the car, with frame rails and a hidden metal bumper front and rear. The doors have a metal frame, to which is attached the outer skin and inner trim panel.

Engine cover of a smart car

So where is the engine? Under the luggage area, laying about 60 degrees tilted towards the rear. It is a 999cc, 3 cylinder engine with DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder, 70 horsepower, and 68 foot pounds of torque.

A smart car engine

It is a Mitsubishi design, shared with their smallest EU and JDM cars. So parts, filters, and the like are all over the internet and dirt cheap. Why 999cc? I assume it is a Japanese tax classification cutoff of some sort.

How does it drive?

Well, pretty darn good, actually. I guess we had really low expectations, because we were amazed. Taking it for a test drive onto the busy Jacksonville beltway was intimidating, but we quickly realized it could keep up with traffic. Not run away from traffic, mind you, but keeping pace with two passengers and the A/C on was no problem. Wiki says it’ll get you to 60mph in 10.7 seconds, which isn’t bad.

The ABS-equipped brakes are superb, though they have rear drums. The front disks look quite large in relation to what little car they have to stop. My wife about put us through the windshield with a heavy braking foot. “Gee, I didn’t expect it to have good brakes!”. The brake pedal is a cute affair, hinged from the floor like an old Beetle.

It feels and rides like a much larger car. The tires are chunky 15 inch Continentals all around, relative to the size of the car. It’s got a heavy feel to the controls, like a Mercedes. If you were blindfolded and could drive it blindfolded, you might believe you were driving an older C-Class. The electric power steering is pinky-finger light when parking, but real firm after that. I suspect the electric power steering simply comes on at parking speeds, then shuts off, rather than being a complicated variable system.

The engine noise is very muffled, not what I expected at all. There is about a 2 inch thick layer of foam on the underside of the load floor carpet, then another insulation blanket on the engine side of the metal engine cover. There is appreciable road noise, though, even at city speeds.

It has a surprisingly “supple” feel to the ride. My uncle’s Renault Alliance he bought new when I was about 14 sprang immediately to mind. Speed bumps and parking lot potholes are neck-snapping due to the tiny wheelbase. But at highway speeds, the ride is just fine for a small car.

The automated manual takes a few blocks to get used to. The key trick is to give it gas, and keep your accelerator foot steady. Your initial inclination is to let up on the gas pedal, when the car drops the RPMs and engages the clutch to shift up to the next gear. If you let up on the gas, then the car thinks you no longer want the next gear, so it abandons the gear shift. Then you give it gas, and it’s stuck in the wrong gear, and it bucks and jerks.

Just give it gas pulling away from a stop, and keep your foot steady. Let the car do the RPM drop, disengage the clutch, perform the shift, engage the clutch, and then resume the RPM’s in relation to your foot. It happens quicker than you can read that sentence.  If you floor the accelerator, it will immediately pick the lowest appropriate gear for the road speed, and take off with surprising urgency.

Once you learn all that, it’s second nature and it’s all the fun of a stick, without the work. My three college-age kids went from “What a ridiculous car!” to “Wow, I love this car!” after driving around town.

So why did it sell so poorly in the USA? My take from about 1,000 miles of ownership:

  1. When new, it was super expensive (in my opinion) for what it is. Even as a used car, there are better options for the same money unless you have a very specific set of criteria it matches. If you just need cheap wheels, the same money would get you a good low mileage Sonic, Spark, or Versa Note, with a back seat, and more cargo room.
  2. It also “requires” premium gas (though I have filled it with regular too, and sense no difference).
  3. The EPA gas mileage ratings of 34mpg city, 38mpg highway, 36mpg combined are disappointing for such a small car, especially when paired with the premium fuel edict.
  4. I suspect the thought of expensive service at a smart/Mercedes dealer discouraged many buyers. The routine services are super easy to carry out yourself, though, and lots of EU owner clubs, sites and videos are on the Web.
  5. USA Mercedes shoppers (and dealers) aren’t interested in a tiny car, and USA urban drivers who want a small car don’t think of hitting the Mercedes dealer.
  6. Safety. Would I rather be in my Suburban if someone hit me? Of course I would. But, with the steel “cage” and all the airbags, I don’t feel unsafe at city speeds and in the ways we intend to use it at our camping destinations.
  7. A two seater, unless it is a pure sports car, strikes most potential buyers as impractical.
  8. The aforementioned learning curve on the automated manual. It would have to give you a poor impression on a test drive. If you have never driven a stick at all, you may never understand how to drive it smoothly.

For what we want to use it for behind an RV, though, and parking in odd spaces like at the end of the row in a busy national park, it is perfect. If you are a big city dweller and need a small car to bebop around the city, or maybe use for weekend getaways out of the city for one or two people, it’s great. If you want to leave it at a second home for occasional use, it fits the bill. But there just aren’t enough buyers with such specific needs to make a go of it.

Over two million smarts of all three generations have been sold since its inception. So, it’s hardly a failure, though that is below the intended quantities.

So what’s next? I need to install the Blue Ox tow plate, of course. This smart had an AM/FM/CD player with two door speakers standard. Someone replaced the stereo with a so-so Pioneer AM/FM/CD unit, which is a single DIN size as opposed to the factory double DIN size, thus an aftermarket pocket under the stereo.

A Panasonic stereo

The Pioneer does not have Bluetooth or any other features over the factory unit. I’m just not sure why anyone thought it was an upgrade, unless the factory stereo 1. died or 2. really sounded bad. For about $300.00, Crutchfield will sell you a double DIN touchscreen stereo with Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay, and two good door speakers, so that’s a likely project for me as well.

Some future article ideas in the making!