Dan Neil, the finest car critic around, drives the Fortwo, aka the Smart car. He likes the car just fine – “it’s a minor hoot to drive” – but worries about his safety on American streets:
So, the first question potential buyers must consider is a cosmic version of: Do I feel lucky? The Fortwo — sold in 36 countries and a familiar sight to anyone who has traveled abroad — is supposed to be a very safe car. I’m sure it is, relatively. The cabin is surrounded by something called the Tridion safety cell, a highly reinforced steel superstructure designed to deform and redistribute crash energy away from the occupants. The cars coming to the U.S. will have anti-lock brakes, stability control, reinforced doors and front and side air bags.
The trouble lies not so much in the car but with the American driving environment that, unlike Europe’s, is filled with 3-ton trucks and SUVs, for which the Fortwo is no more than a snack. It is a dolorous fact of physics that when two vehicles meet head-on, the occupants in the lighter vehicle are almost instantly accelerated backward. Brains, aortas and other soft tissues do not care for this at all. The Fortwo’s evident lack of energy-absorbing crumple zones makes this issue even more acute.
Neil also found that, in mixed-driving, the Fortwo “only” got about 40 mpg, which is comparable to the Honda Civic Hybrid, Toyota Prius and plenty of small European cars with diesel engines. (That mileage is less impressive when you consider that the Fortwo only has 70 horsepower.) Those caveats aside, I’d still consider the Fortwo if I was doing the vast majority of my driving in a dense city with a shortage of parking spaces, like NY or Boston or SF. It would be a fun little commuter car.
Update: In other automotive news, GM yesterday set a distance record for a car running on hydrogen fuel cells. It was a three hundred mile romp through rural New York and, apart from an overheated battery, the cars performed flawlessly.