Originally conceived by Swiss watchmaker Swatch, the Smart car remains one of the world’s most popular city cars. Owned wholly by Mercedes-Benz since 1998, Smart (which stands for Swatch+Mercedes+ART) has been reshaping personal transport, showing that sometimes smaller can be better. Almost 20 years after the launch of that original car, we find ourselves in Los Angeles in the third-generation 2017 Smart Fortwo Cabrio. And though it’s still diminutive in size, this car shows that Smart has really grown up.
Starting from the outside, it now looks as though some actual money has gone into production of the Smart Fortwo. The signature safety cell and brightly colored body panels return, as do the swappable panels, allowing for added customization options. Body panels are still constructed from a durable plastic, but had we not been told otherwise, we would have sworn that this Fortwo Cabrio was constructed from standard sheet metal — the finish really is that good. Also contributing to the grown-up feel is the jewel-like exterior lighting, with a look that’s more suggestive of luxury than low-cost efficiency.
Once inside, what’s most surprising is just how much the new Smart Fortwo Cabrio feels like a “normal” car. Again, the cheap plastics that have defined the car in the past have been ditched for, well, more plastic — but the overall finish has improved, at least. Our tester was equipped with leather upholstery, heated seats, and the optional JBL 6-speaker sound system. We didn’t, unfortunately, get the colorful touch-screen sound system, instead getting a head unit of the older style with normal buttons and dials. This head unit also featured a covered slot in which to insert the optional smartphone cradle, but the cradle—and the cubby that held it—still felt cheap, so we opted to keep it stashed away.
Passenger comments regarding the Smart Fortwo Cabrio’s interior were overwhelmingly positive. With only one driver and one passenger to design around—not to mention the tall greenhouse—the car’s engineers were able to maximize room and passenger comfort. That three-way power-adjustable roof makes the already small boot area even smaller, but if cargo is a concern, this isn’t the car to be looking at. Overall, there’s a bit of disconnect between the exterior and interior of the car. When situated inside, it really does feel like a normal-sized car; it’s only when you pull off some parallel parking miracles that you remember you’re in a car just 8.8-feet long.
And yes, the big draw here is the size. We drove this tiny coupe through the congested and tightly-packed streets of Venice, California, where city planners put two-way traffic and two sides of street parking on alley-sized streets. Door mirrors are knocked off here with regularity, and dings, scuffs, and dents are collected more frequently than Pokemon. The Smart, however, darts through all this chaos with ease. With its go-kart-like handling, this car bobs and weaves around all obstacles, makes impossible U-turns a reality, and then transforms even the smallest patches of asphalt into viable parking spaces.
Freeway performance isn’t so bad, either. Our Fortwo Cabrio tester came powered by the 0.9-liter, 3-cylinder turbo engine, mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. As for getting up to freeway speeds, yes, it gets up to speed…eventually. We’ve been in slower machines, and again, this feels like a larger car from the inside, so merging into LA traffic isn’t exactly terrifying. When the road is clear and dry, this little Smart even provides a smooth and stable ride once up to speed, thanks to its advanced traction control systems. When the road gets wet, however, those electronic aids have to work harder, causing this car to dart and shimmy on the road. Those electronics can’t help this short-wheelbase car defy physics, reminding drivers that this car is not a true highway star.
And it looks like the Smart will never become one, either. Starting next year, the entire Smart lineup will be electric-only, making our tester one of the final Smart cars to be powered by gasoline. The next-generation EV powertrain promises 80 miles of range and a 2.5-hour charging time, making it great for short trips through town. Longer trips, it seems, will require the purchase of another vehicle entirely. At an as-tested $23,750, the Smart Fortwo Cabrio isn’t exactly what one would call cheap, but it’s definitely a smart (sorry) choice for those who love living downtown.