Smart? Smarter!

By David Vespremi, DriverSide Contributor  
2008 Smart fortwo 1
2008 Smart fortwo

Two of the most successful North American automotive brand launches in recent memory, Mini and Scion, both owe their success to a broad palate of customization options available to personalize these already attention-grabbing cars.

The West Coast’s car culture of treating the automobile as a blank canvas for self-expression has fueled an ongoing national fascination with tweaking out cars, as promoted in everything from MTV’s Pimp My Ride to the Warner Brothers Fast and the Furious movie franchise.

Still, it wasn’t until BMW and Toyota embraced the customization of their respective new small car brands, Mini and Scion respectively, and actively sought out relationships with leading tuning houses that what formerly existed as a wink-and-a-nod relationship between auto manufacturers and a thriving cottage industry operating at arm’s length from the parent manufacturers blossomed into a truly symbiotic relationship.

The wheel and tire packages, suspension and performance engine upgrades for both BMW’s Mini brand and Toyota’s Scion brand established these diminutive new market entries to be a similar personality extension to a teenager’s rhinestone encrusted cell phone or a starlet’s Hermes Birkin Bag and Chihuahua combo.

This then brings us to stuffy old Mercedes and their decidedly unstuffy microcar brand, Smart. The Smart ForTwo joins us here in the U.S. following more than ten years of sales in Europe and has clearly benefited from the timeliness of its introduction. Amidst record-setting gas prices and a growing popular aversion to the conspicuous consumption of natural resources, the Smart brand was clearly a well-timed market entry. Its initial sales success bodes well for Smart establishing the long-term staying power that Mini and Scion have both achieved.

Still, at launch both the Mini and Scion offerings had their novelty, too. What seemed to allow their stars to shine while those of similarly priced and equally fashionable offerings like the New Beetle and Dodge Neon faded, is that unlike the New Beetle and Neon, Minis and Scions responded especially well to enthusiast upgrades and proved to be capable platforms, able to accelerate faster, corner with more confidence, and look even better than they did when left unmolested. Just as a Mini or Scion owner began to feel a bit bored with their purchase and might otherwise have strayed to look for whatever the next flavor of the month might be, the aftermarket proved ready to deliver even more smiles for more miles.

This then brings us back to the Smart ForTwo. Its Euro-cool looks and miserly gas mileage, while certainly appealing, by no means establish it as a driver’s car. For one thing, its featherweight 1,800 pound curb weight and performance-ready rear-wheel drive configuration notwithstanding, the Smart is pokey on acceleration, tippy while cornering, and has the aural appeal of a dishwasher.

Even more troubling, its unique three-lug wheel bolt configuration, an attribute shared with the India’s third world automotive appliance, the $2,500 Tata Nano, coupled with comically skinny tires optimized for low rolling resistance at the expense of cornering grip, means that none of the common wheel and tire offerings easily translate over from other popular makes and models to the Smart ForTwo.

So too, with its tiny three cylinder Mitsubishi engine not shared by any other vehicle in the U.S., there is a complete lack of plug-and-play solutions for more power. Factor in cut-rate rear drum brakes instead of disc brakes and a truly bizarre, glacially slow automated manual gearbox and, on the surface, it looks like Smart has all the staying power of Renault’s ill-fated 1970s U.S. import blunder, Le Car.  

Still, tuners seem to be every bit as beguiled by the Smart’s Lilliputian charm as are the gas and image conscious consumers lining up on waiting lists to buy them – and with 35,000 cars slated for the U.S. in 2008 alone, the tuner community’s enthusiasm looks to be supported by a potentially strong return on investment in development resources.

WORKS is a Mitsubishi Motors aligned racing organization and performance parts manufacturer based in Northern California. Pete Kang, WORKS Lead Engineer and Co-Founder, says, “With its Mitsubishi engine, we were intrigued with trying our hand at improving the Smart ForTwo. The Smart impressed us with its ability to respond to basic upgrades in both power and handling, and has proven itself to be a very capable driver's car with just a few simple tweaks. Based on these positive results, we recently introduced our "Smarter" line of performance upgrades and accessories, and the response to these initial products has been very encouraging. Not only is the Smart responding well to these new tweaks and upgrades, but the owners seem inclined to spend money on these adornments in ways that seem completely at odds with the Smart’s low price." is an independent enthusiast message board for the Smart brand and has become a meeting point for Smart owners, dealers, and manufacturer reps online.  Its creator, Ryan Orter, says, “We have been able to poll our user base and it is clear to us that many of the early Smart buyers have the means to purchase significantly more expensive cars. For these early buyers, the Smart is a social statement as much as it is a mode of transportation and many have relegated Range Rovers and Porsches to the garage in favor of driving their Smarts as often as possible. With its low purchase price – a base ForTwo "Pure" cost less than $12,000 and a fully loaded "Passion" convertible tops out at around $18,000 – Smart owners typically have the financial means to freely spend on upgrades and accessories to personalize their cars post-purchase."

My wife and I took delivery of a blue 2008 Smart ForTwo Cabrio in January, just as the cars were first beginning to arrive stateside. There were aspects of the car that immediately impressed us, including luxurious amenities like heated seats, paddle shifters and a power convertible top, as well as those that we only came to appreciate after familiarizing ourselves with the car, like its ability to park perpendicular to the curb and a turning radius just this side of a Big Wheel. However, as with any car, there were also those dynamic elements that were most definitely not to our liking. These included the herky-jerky transmission response, cartoonish body roll around corners, seesaw weight transfer under braking, and oh-my-go-we're-going-to-get-rear-ended throttle response merging onto the freeway. For a featherweight 1,800 pound car with rear-wheel drive, the stock Smart drove nothing like a proverbial go-kart. In all honestly, it was more ox cart than go-kart.

I immediately set off looking for a way to address these issues. Happily, WORKS, the aforementioned Northern California tuner, was intrigued by the Mitsubishi powered Smart, and rose to the occasion. To address the excessive lean while cornering and dive under braking, WORKS engineered an adjustable front sway bar and stiffer springs handling package ($499) which, when combined with wider wheels and stickier tires all around ($1,099), transformed the car from a dingy at sea on a stormy day to something that felt more like a tiny VW GTI. Unfortunately, its acceleration was still more VW Microbus than it was GTI. Although tapping into the engine computer and altering the transmission logic would take more time, WORKS found that by eliminating the restriction at the air intake ($329) and exhaust ($499), not only did the car gain a bit of added oomph (and corresponding merging confidence), but the transmission seemed to respond more predictably to throttle inputs. Well done! Looking back, this makes perfect sense as the ForTwo's stock intake and exhaust have the flow capacity of Starbuck's Frappuccino straw. By opening these up a bit, the car sounds and feels less like a wheezy riding mower and more like a tiny Porsche 911, with a pronounced but pleasant mechanical whir emanating from behind the occupants. Lastly, WORKS added a set of stainless brake lines and performance brake fluid ($99) to give the front brakes a bit more bite under braking.

Thanks to WORKS' trackside location, I even had the opportunity to take Smartie out on the racetrack at Infineon Raceway to validate whether these improvements worked in harmony together and couldn't believe the difference in the character of the car. Not only did the WORKS goodies "work" at improving the issues they were designed to address, but as an integrated package, they all seemed to tie the car together, complementing each of the dynamic attributes in equal measure. From smart to smarter, we couldn't be happier with our little cabrio and look forward to many years of driving fun behind the wheel.

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