By Chris Chase, CanadianDriver.com
I guess bringing this tiny car to Canada was a “smart” idea after all, at least safety-wise.
Naturally, there were many skeptics who felt this diminutive car wouldn’t fly in Canada’s marketplace. There were doubts about its crashworthiness, what with all the large SUVs the Fortwo would share our roads with. Then there were the questions about how it would handle our less-than-pleasant winters. And never mind that it only had 40 horsepower and was funny-looking.
The crashworthiness question can be answered this way: British TV show Fifth Gear crashed an unmanned smart Fortwo into a concrete barrier at 70 mph (about 120 km/h) to see how it would hold up. The answer? Remarkably well, considering the circumstances. See the video on YouTube.com. Then click here for a story about a ClubSmartCar member who survived a serious collision between his Fortwo and a Kia Sorento. video
The fortwo didn’t go on sale in the U.S. until 2008, so that’s the earliest that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have data on the car. The IIHS gave the fortwo a “good” rating in its frontal offset and side impact tests, though there were indications that the driver’s head could hit the steering wheel through the airbag in a severe frontal crash, and injury to the driver’s lower right leg were possible. In the side impact test, the door came unlatched, which, says the IIHS, “shouldn’t happen because, in some crashes, it could allow partial or complete occupant ejection, especially if the occupant is unbelted.” There were no indications of serious injury to the driver in a crash of this severity.
The door also came unlatched in the NHTSA’s side impact test, but the car earned five stars in the test for its excellent protection of occupants. The NHTSA gave the Fortwo four and three stars, respectively, for driver and passenger protection in a frontal impact.
EuroNCAP, more or less the Euro-land equivalent to the NHTSA, noted similar weaknesses in frontal impact protection, but their results back up the American organizations’ complimentary assessments of the car’s side impact strength.
In 2005, the Fortwo came to Canada with a 0.8-litre three-cylinder turbodiesel engine that made 40 horsepower and 74 lb-ft of torque; it carried on unchanged through 2006. There was technically no 2007 model, as parent company Mercedes-Benz geared up for a new 2008 model; any cars sold in 2007 were leftover ’06s. The 2008 Fortwo rode on a longer wheelbase and was completely redesigned, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell. The biggest functional change was the replacement of the diesel motor with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder gas motor, installed to coincide with the car’s launch in the United States, where the car would no doubt be viewed as weird enough without a diesel engine. The gas motor made 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque, so it was quicker. The 2008 model also got a better transmission that improved shift performance considerably over the earlier model’s clunky automated manual.
The Fortwo was offered as a coupe as well as a convertible, which got a fabric roof that simply peeled back from the windshield header.
In 2010, Smart added a Brabus trim, which comprised bigger wheels, sport exhaust and suspension, heated leather seats and sport steering wheel, plus other cosmetic and convenience add-ons.
And as for the Fortwo’s winter driving characteristics, talk to CanadianDriver contributor Michael Clark, who spent a week with one in Canada’s winter capital, Winnipeg, Manitoba. His assessment was mostly positive; read his review here.
Obviously, the Fortwo’s frugal fuel consumption is a big draw here. Natural Resources Canada’s ratings for the Fortwo are 4.6 L/100 km in the city and 3.8 L/100 km highway. Many Fortwo owners at ClubSmartCar.ca proudly display their fuel consumption figures; most fall within, or at least close to, NRCan’s numbers. The switch to gasoline power had a negative effect on fuel consumption, with figures rising to 5.9/4.8 L/100 km (city/highway). James Bergeron averaged 6.4 L/100 km during a week in a 2009 model.
Reliability-wise, the Fortwo has had a few issues since its introduction here. Air conditioning problems seem to be common, but it appears Mercedes-Benz has issued a technical service bulletin to deal with this; as long as your car is under warranty, this should be repaired free of charge. The issue appears to be rigid refrigerant lines that don’t take well to the normal movment of the engine as the car is driven.
Some ClubSmartCar.ca members have had airbag problems, mostly with the driver’s side airbags; a common fix seems to be replacing the steering wheel and/or the airbag.
Watch for problems with the turbocharger and intercooler bolted to the Fortwo’s little diesel engine; many ClubSmartCar.ca members say they’ve had to have this component replaced. This would be covered by the car’s powertrain warranty, but this would be a pricey repair once that coverage expires. Some owners feel that problems can be avoided, or at least put off, by following accepted turbo practices – gentle acceleration when the car is cold, and letting it cool down before shutting the engine off. Turbo problems might be linked to overfilling the engine’s crankcase when changing the oil; others believe the problem is caused by not enough oil getting to the turbocharger.
Watch for door latches that stick and won’t stay closed.
If a first-gen Fortwo cranks but won’t start, check for bad connections at the Signal Acquisition & Actuation Module, or SAM for short. It’s essentially the car’s brain, and is found in the driver’s footwell. For more info, here’s a thread at ClubSmartCar and this link at Evilution.co.uk has lots of useful stuff, too. Here’s another ClubSmartCar thread about problems with the SAM.
A Fortwo that begins to sputter or stalls while driving could be the victim of a failed fuel rail, the pipe that supplies high pressure diesel fuel to the injectors.
In second-generation models, a common problem is the transmission’s refusing to shift into reverse. Shifting to park, restarting the car and trying again usually fixes it. Here’s another thread on the same topic.
So far, the second-generation Fortwo has proven more reliable, but it’s too early to tell with any certainty. For more technical info, check the “General vehicle operation and maintenance” forum at ClubSmartCar.com. There is loads of useful information here, and much of posted by Canadians, as we were first in North America to get the Fortwo.
So long as a two-seater is all the car you need, a Fortwo is an affordable used proposition (not to mention an attainable new car, too). Used values range from $6,125 for a 2005 Fortwo Pure, to $19,950 for a 2010 Brabus cabrio. As mentioned, the newer, gas-powered models seem to be the more reliable of the two generations of fortwo; a 2008 Fortwo Pure coupe is worth a little less than $10,000. Regardless of which generation you choose, look for a car with some of its four-year, 80,000 km warranty remaining, for peace of mind.
The fortwo is an intriguing car that, despite its small size, still casts a unique profile on Canadian roads. It’s great a commuter car (if you can get past the annoying transmission), but a traditional subcompact with a back seat (think Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, among many others) offers a lot more interior space for not a lot more money and won’t use much more gas. More importantly, perhaps, is the promise of better reliability and less-expensive repair costs than you’re likely to experience in the Fortwo. If the Fortwo is the car for you, though, look for one with complete maintenance/repair records and have the car checked thoroughly by a trustworthy mechanic before buying.
Black Book Pricing (avg. retail) September, 2010:
|Year||Model||Price today||Price new|
|2010||Fortwo Passion Pure coupe||$14,575||$14,990|
|2009||Fortwo Passion Pure coupe||$11,925||$14,990|
|2008||Fortwo Passion Pure coupe||$9,725||$14,990|
|2006||Fortwo Passion Pulse coupe||$8,450||$18,700|
|2005||Fortwo Passion Pulse coupe||$7,250||$18,500|
I mostly use ClubSmartCar when I need information on the Fortwo, mainly for its membership being mostly Canadian. A few other sites have sprung up since the car’s introduction in the U.S. in 2008, like SmartCarofAmerica.com and 451s.com.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2006228; Units affected: 551
2006: On certain vehicles, the driver and passenger seat fastening bolts attaching the backrest and seat shell to the seat rails and the fastening bolts of the seat belt buckle may not have received adequate tightening torque during vehicle assembly. Seats and seat belt buckles which have not been properly bolted may not be able to withstand the deceleration forces occurring during a vehicle crash. Correction: Dealers will torque bolts to specs.
Crash test results
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.
Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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