The tide has turned on large, mobile real estate-hogging vehicles here in the U.S. and the new trend is small – even tiny.
We recently tested a couple of tiny cars – the MINI Cooper and the smart fortwo passion coupe – and one of the most common comments was relating to accidents, something along the lines of “I sure wouldn’t want to be in a wreck in one of those.”
Well, I wouldn’t want to be in a wreck in anything, but I certainly concede their point after driving these little passenger vehicles in traffic next to one-ton duallies and 18-wheelers. And if you live in or frequent an area where these type vehicles are commonplace I might not recommend either of this week’s test vehicles as the odds are stacked against you remaining unscathed for very long.
If, however, you can manage to keep yourself and your cool new little ride separate from the behemoths among us, these are certainly worth your attention when shopping a new car.
MINI Cooper hardtop
We first fell in love with the MINI Cooper as soon as they hit U.S. shores in 2000. Built by BMW, this is one of my favorite overall vehicles and they offer one of the most enjoyable driving experiences – of any sized car. MINIs are available in hardtop, convertible, supercharged and now extended Clubman variations with our most recent time spent in a base hardtop model.
While sharing the name with the funky little car that became an overnight hit thanks to the Beatles, the new Cooper is much larger and more lavishly equipped than the historic car of the ’60s. I would even go so far as to call the new MINI a “poor man’s Bimmer.”
Smooth, comfortable, quiet and surprisingly roomy inside the MINI Cooper offers the latest in automotive technology on the road wrapped in a fun environment – complete with the biggest speedometer on the planet.
The body of the latest generation MINI – introduced last year – boasts evolutionary development from the iconic 1959 Classic Mini, while the interior styling cues are evocative of the original and contain the latest technological advances found today.
Performance plays a major role in providing driving fun and the four-cylinder engines of the MINI hardtops deliver.
The turbocharged 1.6-liter version in the Cooper S produces 172 horsepower, eclipsing the magical “100-hp-per-liter” measure revered by enthusiasts. Our tester was powered by the naturally-aspirated engine, also 1.6 liters (120hp and 118 lb. ft. torque), featuring variable valve control and accelerating this agile two-door athlete to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, with a top speed of 126 mph.
The engine is fitted transversely under the bonnet (hood, to us Yanks) and powers the front wheels, and despite its high level of dynamic performance and sporting character, our MINI returns superior fuel economy of 28 mpg city and 37 mpg highway for a combined rating of 32.
The MINI Cooper and the MINI Cooper S both come standard with a six-speed manual transmission but both models can be ordered with an optional six-speed automatic transmission.
A low center of gravity, wide track and the wheels moved to the extreme corners of the car guarantee agile and nimble driving behavior (that go-kart feeling). Compared with the MINI Cooper, the MINI Cooper S has a more sporting suspension set-up, and as an option both models are available with sports suspension for an even higher standard of driving pleasure.
The Electrical Power Assisted Steering helps to make the MINI even more nimble and agile on the road, its speed-related assistance ensuring low steering forces when parking and precise control at high speeds (not to mention less drag on the engine).
In conjunction with the optional sports switch, EPAS even offers a special sports mode specifically increasing steering forces for an even more direct driving experience.
Combined with the horizontal geometry of the interior and, in particular, the dashboard, the displays in their purist, round design characterize the overall design theme of the cockpit. The central element is the MINI-signature center speedometer, larger than before, with an enhanced range of functions serving far more purposes and requirements than on the former generation. The displays and controls for the entertainment system as well as the display for the optional navigation system are integrated in the speedometer, while the tachometer remains a separate unit positioned, as befits a sporting car, behind the steering wheel in the driver’s line of sight.
The vertically arranged rotary knobs for the ventilation, the two cupholders integrated in the bottom section of the center console and the racing-inspired toggle switches are typical of MINI.
Indeed, these characteristic metal toggles, operating the fog lamps, the power windows – with express, one-touch up and down introduced for 2008 – and central locking are larger than before and, in the new generation, are joined by duplicates in the roof console for sunroof and interior-lighting control.
A round transmitter finished in typical MINI style replaces the conventional door and ignition key, with the driver controlling engine operation with a start/stop button. All instruments and controls are very smooth and easy to operate, positioned at the right point for optimum ergonomics.
The new generation’s revised interior lighting reflects typical MINI style and class, with the addition of ambient lighting which can be varied in five stages from warm orange to sporting blue. Serving as discreet “waterfall illumination” from above and as indirect illumination of the roof lining, the door storage bins and the door handle recesses, this illumination scheme creates a unique atmosphere inside the 2008 MINI.
The 2008 MINI continues to offer a wide range of options and special equipment to meet the demands and personal preferences of virtually any buyer. Wood, leather, various trim-and-color combinations mean adjusting the interior can be tailored for that “right” fit.
MINI offers 10 body colors – eight of them metallics – for 2008. The external look is further customizable thanks to additional color and graphic options for the roof.
Optionally, both the MINI Cooper S and the MINI Cooper are available with Chrome line featuring chrome surrounds on the instruments and a chrome bar on the lower air intake in the front air dam, on the fog lamps and the rear fog warning light on the MINI Cooper, plus, on the MINI Cooper S, chrome bars in the air outlet on the rear air dam and on the rear lid handle.
Benefiting from its strong and stable body structure, the MINI offers a standard of crash safety unique in its segment. In the event of a collision, optimized load paths within the body structure serve to effectively divert forces acting on the car, despite the short overhangs front and rear.
Reflecting the premium standard of the MINI, both models come with a wide range of safety equipment, including six standard airbags to enhance occupant safety.
Active safety is enhanced in critical driving situations by the standard ABS braking, Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Cornering Brake Control, as well as Automatic Stability Control + Traction (ASC+T) control standard on the MINI Cooper S with on/off control. Dynamic Stability Control is optional for both models.
Brake Assist on both models detects emergency operation of the brakes and builds up maximum brake pressure very quickly. A new feature is Hill Assist start-off assistance. This feature, in conjunction with DSC, maintains brake pressure for up to 3 seconds after the brake pedal has been released and before the clutch has been engaged, to prevent the car from rolling back when setting off on an uphill gradient.
The smart fortwo is a compact car that is big on comfort, agility, safety and ecology. It defines a new kind of individual mobility in the U.S. following the principle of “open your mind.” It is a very practical and sensible car that is suitable for everyday use, but it is also an expression of confidence, forward thinking and responsibility.
Good things come in small packages, and the smart fortwo is no exception. With its evolutionary design, it embodies the development of an icon, the first-generation smart fortwo that was built between 1998 and 2006. Evolutionary development was the characteristic design language for smart, with the visual emphasis on functionality such as the tridion safety cell.
The two-material concept characterizes the exterior with the combination of the tridion safety cell made of high-strength steel and the use of colored body panels made of dent-resistant plastic, an important distinguishing feature of the brand.
The engineers of the smart fortwo succeeded in producing a small but spacious car for the U.S. market. The vehicle measures a mere 106 inches in length while at the same time creates a remarkably spacious interior offering high comfort and safety. The appearance of the smart fortwo conveys innovation, functionality and joy of life.
The smart fortwo is the right car, at the right time for U.S. drivers.
Americans are faced with volatile fuel prices, increased urban congestion and a mindset of environmental responsibility. The smart fortwo offers a high level of comfort, agility, safety and ecology. Its unique features and attributes meet consumer wishes now and well into the 21st century.
smart takes a more vertical approach to styling than the horizontal MINI. The smart fortwo is the only vehicle in its class to feature projection headlamps, which lend it a high-tech and mature face, and turn indicators are integrated into the headlights. Its upright, athletic appearance is emphasized by the additional air intake, the contrasting black bottom section of the bumper and the projecting handle of the tailgate.
Unique in the small car segment is the ultra-light yet high-strength poly-carbonate panoramic roof. Another unique feature available worldwide is the soft top of the cabriolet version, which is fully automatic and can be infinitely adjusted to any position. The downside of the panoramic roof panel is the heat produced on sunny days and the included sunblocker is partially transparent so some heat and sun manages to get through.
The smart fortwo is one of the most economical (non-hybrid) cars on the road today. A state-of-the-art ULEV-rated compact three-cylinder gasoline engine sits at the rear of the new smart fortwo. The engine capacity is 61 cubic inches (1.0-liter) and its output is a mere 70 hp. The smart fortwo achieves an average of 33/41 mpg (city/highway) according to EPA 2008 regulations and fuel tank capacity is 8.7 gallons.
The smart car is fitted with an automated five-speed manual transmission as a standard feature. There is no need for a clutch pedal, which sets the smart fortwo apart from other small cars. This is because the vehicle is designed for metropolitan areas with stop-and-go-traffic and other characteristics of urban driving making this transmission ideal for a city environment.
Performance ratings show the smart fortwo capable of a maximum speed of 90 mph with a 0-60 mph acceleration of something like 12.8 seconds.
Will the new smart fortwo gain U.S. acceptance? There is a waiting list at the dealerships that carry the vehicle. Once you get past the initial “cuteness” factor, shoppers need to analyze their needs versus what smart will deliver. There are other vehicles on the market that offer equal fuel economy and sticker pricing without the loss of a back seat or enclosable trunk.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the two-seater has proven its success. Since launch in October 1998, about 780,000 customers opted for a first-generation smart fortwo; often to replace a larger car with the little two-seater.
While clearly not for everyone, the smart fortwo is a special car and clearly stands out from the crowd.
smart fortwo frequently asked questions
Who (or what) is smart?
smart is a member of Mercedes-Benz Cars. smart vehicles are sold in 37 countries throughout the world. The vehicle being sold in the United States is the smart fortwo, which means a vehicle designed for two people.
How much does a smart vehicle cost?
The smart fortwo pure retails for $11,590, the smart fortwo passion coupe starts at $13,590 and the smart fortwo passion cabriolet has a base sticker of $16,590.
What smart models are being available for purchase in the United States?
The models being available in the United States are the smart fortwo pure (entry-level), the smart fortwo passion coupe (well-equipped) and the smart fortwo passion cabriolet (well-equipped convertible).
What are the exact dimensions?
The smart fortwo is small on the outside and big on the inside. The smart fortwo that will be available in the United States is 106 inches long (you can usually fit two smart fortwos in an average parking space), 60.71 inches tall (the smart fortwo still has as much headroom as most luxury vehicles) and 61.71 inches wide.
Is the smart vehicle safe?
The safety management system of the smart fortwo sets new standards in its class, and is designed to achieve a 4-star crash rating in the USA.
The smart fortwo comes standard with four airbags (two front, two side), electronic stability program and ABS brakes.