Driving a Smart Car in Winter

On December 25, 2005 I came across this article on the msn.ca website. As these articles seem to disappear over time I am copying it to my website.

 

2005 Smart Fortwo Cool in Winter Too?

December 25, 2005

After thorough tests in fair weather, we venture to find out if this chic micro-car sensation can cut it in the merciless driving conditions of a genuine Canadian winter.

Overall rating : 8.1 / 10

Pros

  • Surprisingly roomy cabin
  • Good seats and driving position
  • Fits absolutely anywhere
  • Remarkably fuel efficient
  • A hoot to drive
  • Standard active and passive safety

Cons

  • Weak defrosting
  • Strong initial understeer
  • Wind sensitive on highway
  • Routine maintenance challenges
  • No parking lock for transmission
  • Where’s the battery?
smart car in winter

With a good set of winter tires, this Smart Fortwo coupe was ready to go out and play in the snow and on the ice, since a stability control system (ESP) and full-featured ABS brakes are standard on all models

A Feisty Micro Runabout

Smart was the unmitigated hit of the 2004 CIAS in Toronto, when Mercedes-Benz Canada announced the launch of a first model, the 2.5-metre long, two-passenger Fortwo. Deliveries started as planned, last fall, and the smallest, stingiest, and arguably cutest car in the country has been raising smiles and eyebrows ever since.

The Fortwo’s unique design and size, combined with attractive pricing – for a car that remains somewhat of a ‘niche’ product – has made it a hit. The select group of Mercedes-Benz dealers who handle the newest brand in the country are selling all they can get.

With the Smart Fortwo, the Early Adopter’s fancy has turned from mini… to micro. And the importer has played this card to the hilt, much like its Bavarian rival with the new Mini since that car’s début.

smart car winter inside

The Fortwo offers amazing room for its tiny exterior dimensions and 'footprint'. Furthermore, the seats are well-shaped and comfortable, the driving position is spot-on and control ergonomics pretty decent.

More Questions Answered

But, novelty factor aside, what is it like to drive a Smart in real life? How frugal is the tiny 730-kilogram runabout in real driving? How safe do you feel driving it, and how safe will it be in a collision? Its adaptation to city driving is a foregone conclusion, if one follows basic logic, but how does it fare on the highway?

One sure thing is that no other test car, in recent history, has turned as many heads and elicited as many questions, from such a variety of people, as the Smart Fortwo.

I conducted back to back tests of a pair of Smarts before their launch last year: a roadster and a coupe. I gleaned a wealth of driving impressions, and complete performance and braking measures.

Yet, I still wanted answers to one of the most frequently-asked questions about the Smart: How does the tiniest car sold in Canada handle harsh winter driving conditions? How indeed, on such a short wheelbase (1549 millimetres, or 61 inches), with rear-wheel drive, which runs contrary to a small-car standard that was set by the original Mini and reinforced by the first Honda Civic in 1973.

I was able to find out, at the wheel of a Smart Fortwo coupe, decked out in ‘Passion’ trim, and equipped with a full set of winter tires, in the middle of February.

smart car in winter - trunk

The tiny Smart can certainly take the cold: its little 799cc turbodiesel engine started easily in the winter cold, but the cabin is slow to warm up and both the defrosting and windshield washing functions need work.

Traction Management 101

The scenario was perfect: I rolled out of the dealer’s service bay in a snow storm and immediately saw the electronic stability system light start flickering (it includes traction control), as the Fortwo rolled over asphalt covered with a thin layer of packed snow turning a bit mushy with all the salt they keep sprinkling it with.

Lifting the foot accelerator slightly cured it. Even though the weight of the Fortwo’s 799cc, 40-horsepower, three-cylinder, turbodiesel engine is placed directly over the driven rear wheels, it certainly does not have monster traction in such conditions. The fact that it delivers it 74 lb-ft maximum torque at only 1,800 rpm also makes its rear wheels spin with very slight provocation.

You quickly learn to modulate the throttle, since the standard Electronic Stability Program (ESP) won’t allow even the slightest bit of wheelspin anyway. Contrary to most vehicles, you cannot turn the ESP off on a Fortwo. A good thing, mostly, with a car this short, no matter how good a driver you are. Even on the slipperiest surface, you cannot spin out in this Smart by applying too much power, because the ESP is standing guard.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine driving a Smart Fortwo during the cold season without the combined assistance of ESP and the best set of winter tires you can get. My test car had been fitted with ContiWinterContact tires (by Continental) in the following sizes: 145/65 R15 in front, and 175/55 R15 in the rear.

Our photo shoots were conducted on a frozen river surface, with about 10-15 centimetres (4-6 inches) of snow on top of glare ice. We brought a shovel – just in case – but the Fortwo simply chugged away, calmly using all the available traction, however limited.

When we got back onto packed snow, it gained speed merrily, to the happy ‘Tasmanian Devil’ growl of its three-cylinder diesel engine. I even tried to get it stuck by driving into a foot-deep snow bank lining the sidewalk in front of our editorial offices, but the Fortwo shrugged it off, and clawed its way out again.

The car’s exceptional lightness is certainly a factor in its ability to maintain forward motion.

winter smart wwasher

To get to the windshield washer fluid container, you must first remove this small panel in front. The ignition key does the job well, but good luck if the panel is frozen in place.

Tiny Winter Cruiser

Minutes after leaving the dealership, snow still falling insistently, the Fortwo was gliding down the highway, easily keeping pace with surrounding traffic. I was impressed by its excellent stability in these inclement conditions. The front tires, notably narrower, ‘sliced’ through surface snow and slush, keeping the car well-planted and yielding a nice weight and plenty of feel to the steering wheel. They also prevent hydroplaning impeccably, but the frozen gumbo displaced makes quite a racket inside the thin wheel wells.

Once you have reached your chosen cruising velocity, the Fortwo just whisks along. The greatest limiting factor is a strong sensitivity to side winds. The car does react sharply to the strongest gusts, but its overall stability is not affected as much as it would be in many a small car with soft suspension.

Handling-wise, the Fortwo has plenty of understeer when you turn into a corner: Giving the wheel a good quarter turn is not unusual. But once it takes a set, body roll is well-controlled. Once you get used to this routine, the tiny Smart is great fun to drive on any road. Slightly more so the Coupe, I found in earlier tests, thanks to its better overall structural rigidity.

Dialling out much of the front wheels’ on-center responsiveness was the engineers’ answer to concerns over such a short and tall little car’s propensity to tip over. I would be quite curious to drive a Smart with properly sharp steering feel and action, since ESP is always there to detect and control any sudden and exaggerated body movement anyway. Heck, it won’t even allow an innocent handbrake turn on snow.

This said, it’s too bad you cannot get a Fortwo with cruise control either, because I see no reason to avoid driving long distances in this little car, if you are travelling relatively light (and on dry roads, of course, if cruise control was available).

The Smart is surprisingly roomy, even for two full-size passengers. Its tall seats are nicely sculpted and quite comfortable. There is a solid, flat dead pedal, and control ergonomics are generally pretty good, although most levers and buttons have a rather ‘plasticky’ feel.

There is 260 litres of luggage space in the rear, enough for several grocery bags, or a couple of stuffed weekend bags. You can add optional accessories such as a $21 luggage fastener or a $79 trunk tray to make things more practical inside. You can also go for the $316 roof rack and clip on either the $88 ski rack, or the $167 bicycle support.

In this test car, I missed the frog-eye like clock and tachometer, a $240 extra for the pair.

winter smart wwasher1

Once the panel is removed, you must get to this a filler neck tucked inside and try no to spill too much of the coloured fluid.

Its Wintry Ways

The Fortwo can be great fun in winter, but all is not perfect. The diesel engine itself is fine. It starts without a hiccup, the ‘glow plugs’ needing about 12 seconds to warm things up in the combustion chamber in a -6C degree cold start. The typical diesel racket disappears quickly as you drive off, but the interior is slow to warm up on a cold day (heated seats, a $350 option, help you wait).

That said, the Fortwo needs work in the defrosting department. In one instance, I needed to alternate between the defrost and instrument panel vent positions, blower at full force, to keep the long windshield and big side windows frost-free in -8C temperature. Still, we needed to scrape the side glass.

The standard wipers are also long and flimsy-looking. In addition, the triple-jet windshield washer nozzles are not very powerful and set too close to the base of the windshield to cover it fully, even with a long squirt.

Then, you face the challenge if replenishing the windshield washer fluid reservoir. One first needs to unlock and remove a panel just below the right-side wiper (I used the ignition key). Good luck if everything is frozen in place. Then, you need to aim well, because the filler is small and tucked in low inside. Bottom line: the Fortwo’s Canadian Winter-readiness could be much better.

All this glass surface pays off, though. On a sunny winter day, the fabulous panoramic view to the front and sides turned a simple drive on a country road into a truly joyful experience. No kidding. A Smart will do this to you, repeatedly.

winter smart snow

Behind the tiny rear window and tailgate is 260 litres of neat luggage room, enough for a quartet of grocery bags, a couple of knapsacks or this handy aluminium shovel we carried to our photo shoots, just in case.

Vital Numbers

Earlier performance measures, conducted on dry asphalt, produced a 0-100 km/h acceleration time of 20.51 seconds with a Fortwo coupe. It also covered the quarter mile in 22.21 seconds, hitting 101.5 km/h at the timing point.

Yet, the Fortwo doesn’t feel slow in normal driving, especially in the city. Be prepared, on the other hand, for a top speed of about 140 km/h (indicated) on the highway, at best, which gets rolled back to about 120 km/h with a headwind. The sequential manual gearbox (clutchless) even suggested a downshift from 6th to 5th gear in such conditions…

In simulated emergency braking tests from 100 km/h, the coupe stopped straight and true, in 43.1 metres. Braking is excellent at all times. Pedal feel is firm and consistent, and the ABS is both quick and effective. Brake assist and electronic braking force distribution are also included.

As for fuel economy, I averaged about 5,7 litres per 100 km (50 mpg) while driving quite enthusiastically, mostly around the city, in cold winter weather. Thankless conditions for a fuel economy evaluation. By comparison, I got 3.9 litres per 100 km (72.4 mpg) from the Fortwo Roadster, after a relaxed country drive in May. Your results may thus vary.

winter smart driving

The Fortwo travelled slowly but surely on this surface of glare ice covered with about four inches (10 cm) of fresh snow, its traction control system letting it make the best use of the minimal grip available.

Conclusion

There is nothing like the Smart Fortwo on Canadian streets and roads, and this could remain true for quite a while. The base price, for this top-of-the-line Passion coupe model, is $19,200. The Pure coupe starts at $16,500 and the Pulse at $16,500. These prices, for a unique, ultra-chic, two-seater micro-car that you can trim out exactly to your taste, are tempting, and business is justifiably brisk.

The Fortwo also happens to be the most fuel-efficient street-legal four-wheeler in the land, and it has established a solid reputation for reliability and durability in Europe since launch, more than six years ago.

All models are built around a high-tech, steel safety structure (the ‘Tridion’ cell, built by Magna) that makes them as crashworthy as many larger cars, their passive safety enhanced by standard frontal and aide airbags. They all come with standard ABS, stability control, power windows, an AM/FM radio with CD player and more. My Passion test car also had AC as standard equipment.

For all these reasons, and in spite of its wheezy defrosting, lazy turn-in and other minor foibles, the Smart Fortwo is just about peerless, and darn irresistible.

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Comments

Driving a Smart Car in Winter — 3 Comments

  1. Quite a long read, but at least you have basically covered it all. I would love a smart car, but now that I have my own family, I think I am going to buy a family sedan. I was single though, I’d definitely try this one.

  2. Regarding the Windshield Washer Fluid reservoir(or any reservoir) I just keep a small funnel in my auto schtuff kit :)

    I wonder who was driving through the US South back into Canada in 2006. I was travelling back home to Michigan in my Beetle and kept coming up on a Smart w/ Canadian plates. Eventually the driver noticed me and honked a greeting. Very cool indeed.

    Peace.

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