At Autobytel, we've probably driven just about every car on the market, but we can't think of the last one that got as much attention as the 2013 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet. We've driven everything from Aston Martins to Nissan Z cars, and we were still constantly surprised with the amount of attention this car got while in parking lots or driving down the road. Some people were inquisitive about the car's safety and interior dimensions and others assumed it got some astronomical fuel economy figure, but the majority of passers-by just wanted to see the car up close. Our time in the slightly refreshed 2013 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet started at the 2012 Topless in Miami convertible event before we hit the road for a 400-mile interstate drive leading into our two-week road test and review. This much time behind the wheel definitely gave us the opportunity to see what benefits and drawbacks there are to driving such a small, attention-grabbing car.
Assembled in Hambach, France, the 2013 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet has a starting MSRP of $17,890. The hardtop coupe version starts lower at $12,490 and comes in two trim levels, but the cabriolet is only available in a single trim level, the Fortwo Passion. Tacking on a few options and the destination charge, the as-tested price of this Smart Fortwo Cabriolet was $20,030. That might seem like a lot of money for a car sized closer to some golf carts, but this is still thousands of dollars less than two of the most affordable convertibles on the market: the Mazda MX-5 Miata and the Chrysler 200 Convertible.
Not surprisingly, as fuel prices have fluctuated wildly over the last several years, competition for the 2013 Smart Fortwo has really picked up. In convertible form, the FIAT 500 Cabrio is probably the closest thing to a direct competitor to the Smart Fortwo Cabriolet while the Scion iQ and upcoming Chevrolet Spark are likely to be cross shopped by buyers who do not desire the open-air experience. Sales of the Smart Fortwo have risen steadily over the last year since Mercedes-Benz USA took over sales and marketing of the brand from Penske Automotive, and last month's 1,017 units sold were the highest sales volume the brand has seen since August 2009 and marks a 208 percent increase over sales from June 2011. So far this year, Smart sales are up an impressive 86 percent to 4,748 units, and that's before the all-electric Smart fortwo electric drive goes on sale later this year.
With a look that tiptoes the line between cute and muscular, the 2013 Smart Fortwo definitely stands out from anything else on the road, and sharp eyes will notice the updated styling that was unveiled at the New York Auto Show. A new front fascia has a larger grille opening that prominently features the Smart brand logo, and a more aggressive lower air intake gives the car a lower and meaner look. The rear fascia has also been updated slightly and new optional LED daytime running lights (not equipped on our test car) round out the changes for the 2013 Fortwo. Being the convertible model, our Smart Fortwo Cabriolet had retractable cloth top that doesn't take away from the car's looks, but it still opens up the interior without losing any of the safety.
Aside from the relatively minor styling changes, the 2013 Smart Fortwo has the same instantly recognizable appearance. One of the true styling highlights of the Smart Fortwo is the exposed tridion safety cell - the frame that gives the Fortwo its strength - which can be painted in either black or silver on the Passion trim level, but our test car lacked the unique, contrasting paint scheme since the silver-painted safety cell almost perfectly matched the car's silver metallic paint job. While we couldn't do much about our car's paint job, Smart will point out to prospective buyers that all of the plastic body panels are removable and interchangeable which opens up the possibility for a unique level of personalization to the car. After the safety and fuel economy questions, most attention focused on the wheels which people guessed were 12 or 13 inches, but the Fortwo Passion Cabriolet actually rides on 12-spoke,15-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment and a handful of other wheel are also available as options.
Its overall length is just slightly longer than the bed of a long-bed, full-size pickup truck, but the 2013 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet offers plenty of head and legroom even for taller passengers and the driver also has a surprisingly high seating position. Offset passenger seats help to create more shoulder room between the driver and passenger, but it still ends up feeling a little cramped at times. Our test car was equipped with the new-for-2013 leather seating option that is part of the $940 Comfort Package which added to the car's comfort level. The best part about the Fortwo Cabriolet is that the top is operational at any speed, but with the top closed, there is plenty of road and engine noise that makes its way into the cabin. The three-position top can be fully closed, fully open or a position in the middle acting as a glorified sunroof, and with the top all the way open, the side cross rails are removable for a more complete top-down experience than what is available on the Fiat 500 Cabrio.
The cabin design 2013 Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet is pretty straightforward with a simple, yet effective, instrument gauge cluster, a spacious glove box and a stylish instrument panel design, and features such as power door locks, power windows and air conditioning are all standard. In terms of equipment, even the 2013 Smart Fortwo Passion models come relatively base with no cruise control or satellite radio, but our car's optional Comfort Package added the leather seats, simulated leather on the instrument panel and door panels, heated seats, electric power steering and a luggage compartment cover. Speaking of the luggage compartment, since the Fortwo's interior was designed to maximize passenger space, cargo volume is quite small, but we were still able to fit an airplane-sized roller board suitcase, camera bag, tripod and laptop bag in the back of the Fortwo with no problems. Other optional features include a $1,760 Technology Package (adding navigation and surround sound), $750 Style Package adding the LED DRLs, ambient cabin lights and stylish three-spoke wheels) and $280 Cruise Control Package.
Don't bother lifting the hood looking for the engine in the 2013 Smart Fortwo... it's in the trunk! The car's 1.0-liter inline-three is positioned behind the passenger seats under a metal engine cover, and, like almost everything else about the car, the output is deceptively small with 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque. This might not sound like a lot, but with a curb weight of only 1,808 pounds, the Fortwo's engine output is not the problem with this car. While the automated manual transmission has become commonplace in many performance cars, the Fortwo's gearbox is the bane of its existence and sucks most of the driving enjoyment right out of the car sending the power to the rear wheels in a jerky manner. The Smart Fortwo's small size makes it a great car for city driving, but this drivetrain combination also makes it great on the open road with EPA fuel economy estimates of 34 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and a rating of 36 mpg in combined driving. You can find higher city numbers in most hybrids and higher highway numbers in smaller compacts, but it is among the best for combined driving.
Since its U.S. introduction, the Smart Fortwo's biggest downfall has been its transmission. Being an automated manual means that the transmission is set up just like a manual gearbox only it uses an electric clutch to change the gears, but with harsh, jerky shifts that take seconds (or at least it seems), you'd swear whoever programmed the transmission's control module had no clue how to shift a real manual transmission themselves. The good news? The car also comes with a full manual mode for the transmission allowing the driver to shift, but there is still a bit of a learning curve when trying to find the right shift points so as not to get whiplash. Another big problem we experienced on our long interstate drive was that the narrow tires tended to follow every buckle and crease in the road causing the car to pull at a moment's notice. We did get excellent fuel economy on our drive up Florida's east coast on I-95 getting almost 41 mpg from the 8.7-gallon gas tank (that requires premium fuel) meaning that we drove almost 350 miles on a single tank. Since the city is where the Fortwo really shines, driving around town was surprisingly fun, and finding a parking spot near Miami's bustling South Beach was a breeze.
Despite its small size, the 2013 Smart Fortwo is still a very safe car thanks to its innovative tridion safety cell which is a roll cage-like device that encompasses the passenger compartment and helped return impressive crash results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) - the only thing keeping the Fortwo from being a Top Safety Pick is the Acceptable rating for the rear-crash protection tests the seat and not the car's body. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has yet to test the Smart Fortwo under its new 2011-and-up standards, but it has given the car an unimpressive three-star rollover rating. All 2013 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet models come standard with safety features that include eight airbags, anti-lock brake system, Electronic Stability Program (ESP), traction control, hill start assist and tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
The 2013 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet is not the cheapest car on the market nor is it the most fuel efficient, but what it can do is navigate a densely populated city better than any other car in the U.S. Even around some of the worse parking jobs imaginable (and we found plenty of these in Miami), the Smart Fortwo is easy - and even fun - to park. The 2013 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet definitely isn't meant for everyone, though, but drivers looking for a car designed for the city offering excellent maneuverability AND a convertible top won't find a car better than this. Even better, this car is great for starting conversations with perfect strangers, so we'd have to call it one of the friendliest cars on the road, too.
Smart provided the vehicle for this review Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross