How smart is a Smart? Note that I'm capitalizing the name, even though in the marketing and on the car, it's all lower-case. That's just for the sake of clarification.
The EPA highway rating for the ForTwo is 41mpg on premium fuel. Check that out, premium. Your ultra tiny economical personal mobility pod takes high-test. But at 41 miles per gallon, that's not bad. Assume $3.89 per gallon - totally reasonable on this date of late August 2011 - and that works out to a fuzz under nine-and-a-half cents per mile. If it's just you getting down the road, you're doing well.
But let's cast that against a few of the other options. Take, for instance, the globally developed Chevy Cruze Eco. It's a Cruze with a few small modifications and if you, like I have, ever spend any time on the excellent website ecomodder.com, you will see that most of what GM did to make their Cruze an "Eco" was nothing you can't do at home. But that noise aside, the Cruze Eco whistles up a rating of 42mpg highway. Wait a sec - that's one more than the "Smart" car. And the Eco takes regular. Assume $3.60 per gallon - and at this moment that's actually more than I pay by about 10 percent - and you're looking at about eight and a half cents per mile. You might think that's chump change, and it is - you're a chump if you pass it up.
Not a Chevy fan? Okay. The Ford Fiesta "only" whistles up 40mpg highway. But again, it's running on regular fuel, not premium. There's savings there, but it's slightly down from the Eco's impressive result.
I drive around 12,000-15,000 miles per year. At a penny per mile, that's up to a $150 savings per year. Maybe only $100 worth of savings driving the Fiesta. Insignificant, you might think, but let's reexamine some of the givens of these cars.
The ForTwo is a two seater. Smart is pretty loud about this. They play it up, declaring it to be one of their car's primary selling points. "All the car you need, and none of the car you don't." If all you ever do is convey yourself back and forth, it may well fit that mold. But how certain are you that that's all you really will ever need? Things happen. Families grow, you move, you get a cat. You pick up family from the airport.
If you have one friend to carry with you, the Smart gets the job done. Two seats, one trip, no problem. Add one more person and the formula goes into the wastebasket. There are no more seats. Even Scion's brand new iQ submini, almost a doppelganger for the diminutive Smart, can carry four in a pinch, and it's only a foot longer than the Smart. The iQ is still tiny. It still looks like a baby shoe. And it also takes regular gas.
The Cruze Eco has seats for four. Five if there's someone small you can put in that emergencies-only center spot. So what you can do in one trip in the Eco, the Smart will need four trips to accomplish. And of course the Eco has a perfectly functional trunk, comfortably larger than the Smart's cargo area.
The Ford Fiesta is available as a four-door hatchback, that super-flexible form factor that makes you seriously question your need for a wagon. Seats fold down, cargo cover tucks away, and suddenly toting back that new fire ring from Home Depot is a snap. It all fits inside. And it still gets that thrifty 40mpg on regular.
The Smart ForTwo is cheaper at its base model than either of these other offerings. Even completely optioned up, it still comes in at a comfortable margin less than a similarly equipped Eco. And coming with only half the seats and half the cargo space, it had damned well better. Of course, it doesn't cost half as much. It's more like about 6/7 as much. So yeah, there's some savings to be had, no doubt. They will slowly be eaten away by the lower highway mileage and the thirst for the more expensive fuel.
It's worth noting that the Smart ForTwo and the Scion iQ both get poorer fuel mileage than the Fiesta or the Cruze Eco. So as convenient as the super itty bitty form factor might be in a crowded city, it's actually holding you back once you get onto the open road. Once you get to where you can open it up, the Cruze and the Fiesta start passing up the gas stations that the so-called "economy cars" can't ignore. Bigger car with more capacity, bigger fuel tank, and even better economy.
Sorry, it just doesn't seem that smart to me.