2008 smart fortwo cabriolet

Ten years ago, Mercedes-Benz introduced a two-passenger commuter car called smart. The smart fortwo looks like the front half of a sedan, and that's basically what it is. With a 73.5-inch wheelbase and 54-inch track, a smart fortwo can fit in half a parallel parking space, if the driver parks nose in.

The smart car made its debut in the United States last January, just in time for this country's biggest fuel crisis since the 1970s. Drivers who wouldn't have considered a small car two years ago are finding a lot to love in the smart: average highway fuel economy is 41 miles-per-gallon.

I recently had the chance to drive the smart fortwo cabriolet. Base price on the open-air smart is $16,590, not including a $645 delivery charge. Power steering, a tachometer/clock gauge set  and other options bring the sticker on the test car to $18,585.

Put My Arms Around You

In twenty years of writing about automobiles, the smart fortwo is the first car I could put my arms around: literally. There's something comforting in that, and also something unnerving

With my arms wrapped around the smart, I looked at the cars parked in neighboring driveways: Nissan Titan, Toyota Tacoma, Chevy Silverado. Phoenix is truck country. For a week, I'd be sharing the roads with cars three times as big as the one I was driving.

The one-liter engine was another big question mark. Here in Phoenix, the speed limit on most highways is 65 miles-per-hour, but drivers rarely travel under 70. Seventy is pretty close to the smart fortwo's top speed: ninety miles-per-hour. I would have to get the smart up to cruising speeds on the entrance ramp, and have something in reserve if I needed to make an evasive maneuver in traffic.

Testing the Waters

To begin, I decided to run a few errands around the neighborhood. Entering the car, I was surprised by the amount of space in the passenger cabin.

The PR guys claim that a six foot tall adult can sit inside. To test their claim, I asked my six-foot tall husband to sit in the passenger seat. He fit just fine, with a couple inches of headroom to spare.

Then I took the smart to the running shop. One of the managers, who is about six-foot-three, got in the driver's side. By pushing the seat back, he was also able to fit comfortably inside.

The driver's seat is mounted forward of the passenger seat, to give both seating positions the most hip and shoulder room. Standard cloth seats are attractive and comfortable. There are two cupholders in front of the shift lever on the floor console, both big enough to hold my Phoenix-size water bottles.

A display screen in the center stack shows audio settings. Two levers near the top of the center stack control temperature and fan settings. An optional gauge set on top of the center stack includes a clock and tachometer. I would highly recommend buying the gauges, since anyone driving on the highway will be pushing the engine close to red line.

Stalks on the steering wheel operate the lights and windshield wipers,, while paddles in back offer one method of shifting the transmission manually. A large dished shelf beneath the steering wheel holds paperwork or small electronic devices. A 12-volt powerpoint at the base of the center stack recharges those devices on the go.

The ignition lock is in the floor console: an idea borrowed from Saab. The idea is to keep the key away from the driver's knee, where it could cause injury in the event of a collision. Relocating the ignition lock also enabled engineers to install kneepads as part of the car's safety system.

A toggle switch on the floor console opens the cabriolet top, while a button in back of the car opens the rear glass window.

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