Smart Car – But No Smart Gas Mileage In U.S.

NBC Nightly News tonight lauded the new (to America) Smart car from Mercedes Benz.[1] Smarts have been around for a number of years in Europe and have proved relatively popular both in Britain and on the continental mainland.


Given a choice of eleven different models, ranging from the basic “Fortwo Pure” at 61 bhp to the rangy Smart “Fortwo BRABUS Cabrio” at 98 bhp, it would seem there is one to suit anybody – or at least, anyone with no children, as the Smart is only a two-seater.

NBC made much of the car for inner city commuting, particularly it’s ability to park on a dime, but then came the shock. According to the US EPA the car only returns a combined town/highway gas consumption of 36 mpg.

Asked about such an appalling figure from a 999cc engine, the dealer responded in true dealership fashion:

“You know, there’s a fine line between performance expectation and maximum fuel economy.”

Excuse me?

Presumably, he was trying to say that if you want it to go reasonably quickly, it requires more gasoline? Then why is the American version fitted with a governor that caps top speed at 84 mph, when the basic European car manages 90 mph and the BRABUS 95 mph?

All this may seem somewhat irrelevant until one discovers the Smart’s European counterparts manage to return fuel economy figures that make the US version look like a ten ton truck.[2]

Town/highway figures show the European BRABUS returns a respectable 54 mpg, and the basic Smart manages a devastatingly appealing 60 mpg.

Which begs the question: why do foreign cars sold in America always produce poorer gas mileage figures than their European or Asian counterparts? The US Smart manages a figure over a third less, from the same 999cc turbo-charged engine.

It makes no sense, unless one becomes incredibly cynical and dares to suggest a political element limiting the scope of non-American motor manufacturers?

[1] “NBC – Inspiring Envy With The Anti-SUV”

[2] “UK Smart Car Guide”

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82 Replies to “Smart Car – But No Smart Gas Mileage In U.S.”

  1. I’m with you on the Smart Car, RJA, I would have got one myself only for the long treks I have to go on across country with luggage and dog and occasional passenger. I hear you on the mileage.
    We have the Zenn (Zero emission no noise) car invented in Canada but it is not approved for use yet (!!!) (18 months and counting) apart from in BC and parts of U.S.
    Reminds me of the electric car that was banned years and years ago.
    Big Oil involved? That saintly bunch? Never!!

  2. I am completely befuddled – surely they are the same cars? Or are they manufactured differently in the US? My sister-in-law had a Smart car, but when her work asked her to start doing silly mileage (Brighton to Manchester and back), she asked for a slightly more comfortable one!

  3. (In best German accent)…Ve–eery interesting, RJ – but not funny!

    It’s time somebody slapped the oil industry down good and proper in the US.

    That’s a cute little vehicle, but I think most people would have to be rich enough use it only as a second car, with all attendant expenses. I can’t imagine it feeling safe on some of the urban highway systems here, sandwiched between two big semis – I’d be scared s-less!

  4. My feelings are the same as Twilight’s and Jo’s regarding safety on motoways. Especially those very open ones, and ones with viaducts in particular. Every time we have howling gales (which are regular occurances in a lot of areas) much heavier vehicles are regularly blown over and/or off the road.

    As for the milage performance (or more accurately, under-performance), being “fixed” in America, I think that’s a given.

  5. WWW – sadly, the ZENN website was so slow I had to give up for the time being on checking it out more thoroughly. You’re right, Big Oil probably has more to answer for about damaging the planet than anyone else. They have blocked research into ‘green’ vehicles for years.

    Jo – America has ‘different’ regulations re emissions, etc than Europe. They’re not better, just different. The Smart car is imported and “Americanized” before being offered for sale. I have no way of knowing if this is the reason for the fuel consumption differences, but it seems likely.

    Twilight – Vee haf vays off makin’ ya drive zis teeny leetle mota car ……..

    I drive a mid-engined, two-seat, Pontiac Fiero. It’s so low to the ground I could drive under most semis! (English translation: semi = articulated lorry). Surprisingly, I feel very safe in it (even though it is American-built…..he added!)

    TOB – I had you down as a ‘big-car’ man. 😉

  6. I have one that seems to get good mileage. I will be doing a mileage test over this next week. As far as safety, they sit farther off the ground than other cars I’ve owned and has better visibility. It’s actually a great second car for a couple since if one of you needs to do a lot of freeway driving or haul things around you can use the ‘big car.’ But the Smart can haul more than 6-8 bags of groceries without any problem. If the mileage sits around 40 mpg one could easily go for a Yaris or Prius instead. This year the EPA has also jacked around with the MPG ratings, so God only knows what that does to the realistic mileage. Is Big Oil involved? Most likely, since you’re talking about a country that’s for sale to the highest bidder.

  7. The answer is very easy and anyone following this car knows why.

    First the car is peppier then any euro version. They knew if they went for the max econo version it would never fly in the USA due to the poor acceleration numbers. For the first year in the USA they must pick a trans/engine/looks combo that most can agree with. Americans don’t like diesel cars (for many wrong reasons) so bring the high mileage diesel wouldn’t work either.

    Even Americans looking for a small computer car (they think) will not want a car that takes 20 sec to get to highway driving speeds.

    As far as the top speed governor there are many technical theories why they would do that ranging from safety data or warranty theory. Only the importer (Penske) knows for sure.

    Most early data coming in (even with the new USA EPA MPG ratings) are showing this car getting close to 40mpg on the highway. That is in line with the power, torque curve of this engine and the performance it delivers.

    The first couple of years the Mini didn’t produce great numbers either getting 32mpg and now they have it up to 40mpg. Give it some time and it will improve. In the mean time they have the USA the engine they feel is the best combo of performance, drivability (reads noise, smoothness, ect) and fuel economy as goofy as you think that sounds.

    I’m not defending it, only explaining why it the MPG stinks. If MPG was the ONLY goal they they would have got the diesel that gets 70+mpg. Do some Google work and you find all studies show Americans have (and incorrect) view that diesel engines are still noisy, smelly and bad for the environment.

  8. the zenn car sucks, its not even a car its an enclosed golf cart. 35 miles range not allowed on roads with speed limits faster than 35 miles. takes 8 hours to recharge its garbage.

    The reason the smart car gets worse mileage here in the US is because of the catalytic converters used here are inferior to the ones used in europe

  9. I don’t know if it played a factor in this case, but it must be remembered that the American gallon is only 3.8 litres, while the Imperial gallon is 4.54l. Americans just get 20% lower mileage because of their smaller gallon.

  10. I just looked at the new smart cars in the San Antonio showroom was appalled at the low gas mileage!! I am a Brit and lived in London where these were every where.

    I seemed to remember them doing about 70 MPG in the UK – so I checked the UK Auto Car web reviews to make sure: and for the 70hp Passion it is listed as 51 MPG town (adjusted for the US gallon)and 84 MPG (adjusted for US gallon) highway.

    WHAT have they done to the car here in the US???? They are only estimating a corresponding 33 MPG and 41 MPG – not much more than my Focus!

    Such a great car but it will not catch on with this poor gas milage – shame, a real shame.

  11. Woops i think I got my coversion upside down!! Comparitive MPGs I think shoulb be:

    UK SPEC:
    CITY: 43 MPG (=36 MPG US)
    HWY: 70 MPG (= 58 MPG US)

    US SPEC CAR: (using US gallon)
    CITY: 33 MPG
    HWY: 41 MPG

    Better – but still a far cry from the Euro spec….

  12. although I agree with Shawns assessment reference Americans not wanting diesel or low acceleration vehicles the times are changing and maybe the auto manufacturers should consider giving us stupid americans a choice. I’m a big boy and resent the fact that big industry does my thinking for me. Thanks for the insite shawn

  13. So far I’m getting around 42 to 45 with mine. One factor that might effect the EPA’s rating is that they might not be starting with a proper fill (you have to top up the tank like a motorcycle). Also, if like most, you are comparing the Smart’s EPA MPG to the 2007 or earlier MPG ratings of cars like the Yaris or Prius then your numbers are completely out of whack and you need to check The Smart is still getting better MPG than any non-hybrids. I’m also always scoring great on-street parking.

  14. So are we talking about gasoline vs. diesel engines as well? If we are, there is much better gas mileage from diesel fuel due to the mere energy content. I don’t believe there are mileage conspiracies going on… often digging deeper into the story leads to some very reasonable series of actions.

  15. I just put a deposit on a smart cabrio, so I’ll wait a year for it. Yep, the hybrids (Prius) get better gas mileage. But, my cabrio will probably cost me (fully loaded) about $18.5k, vs roughly $23k for the Prius. I am too tired to do the math right now, but average the $4.5k against the MPG differential, and I bet you come out about the same over a 5 yr period.

  16. So BIG OIL is stopping high MPG vehicles from hitting the US Market? Maybe, in looking at the US market, Smart Car figured it would be tough to sell a car that goes 0-60 in 13 sec, so it boosted the performance at the cost of some MPG. The market for this car is primarily upper middle class folks that can afford a secondary car to make a statement. To them, giving others the impression that they care about the environment is most important, not the actual result.

    For example, why does the Prius outsell the Civic Hybrid by such a wide margin? Both get comparable mileage. Simple, if you drive a Prius, everyone knows you’re in a hybrid, and thus you must care deeply about the environment. Thus, you are superior to us unenlightened pleebs that don’t know any better. If you drive the Honda, whose styling is not so differentiated, few make the connection.

    Ironically, the environmental damage and pollution caused by mining the battery minerals and then shipping the material around the world for processing is grater than that casued by any other car. I’m talking real pollution, not CO2 emission. If you’ve been led to believe that CO2 emissions are causing GW, then you should know the carbon footprint of a Prius is greater than that of a Hummer over a 5 year period when you factor in the energy used in the entire manufacturing process.

  17. “For example, why does the Prius outsell the Civic Hybrid by such a wide margin?”

    Well John, for one reason the Prius has clearly superior technology. Crawling along or stopped in traffic? The Prius shuts off the gas motor and can run on electricity alone whereas the Civic uses is rather small electric assist to boost the smaller gas engine. The Prius gets better mileage! Honda has sadly dropped the ball on hybrids.

    And that silly article by Chris Demorro claiming that the “Prius Outdoes Hummer in Environmental Damage” has been debunked all over the internet – but if your in love with conspiracy theories – look no further.

  18. I got one of the first ones in the States. I live in SF (hills), and I am averaging just 20 MPG with mine! I called the dealer today who verified that one other owner is having similar issues and they verified it getting just 22 MPG. I am going to force the manufacturer to give me a new one if they don’t find a fix.

    Also, the projected gas mileage for the US changed to reflect the faster freeways (used to be based on 55 MPH, now is 65 MPH). So mileage for the same car from 06 to 08 should have dropped about 20%, just because the test changed.

  19. I am a brit who’s been waiting for these cars to become available in the US now for some time. Well imagine my dissapointment to find out the gas milage is so terrible. If I decide to import a European model am I going to run into any complications here in the US??????

  20. I have a 1992 Honda Civic VX that’s about twice as big as a smart car, with a 1.4L engine and 92hp, and it currently gets 40MPG overall (combination of city and highway driving).

    Why don’t they make the Civic VX anymore? I believe its VTEC engine is the most fuel-efficient gasoline automobile engine ever built.

  21. I dont think big oil is in it alone since OUR government taxes the fuel and if they allowed high MPG cars in then their fuel tax revenues would go down and they couldnt/WOULDNT allow that.

    I personally wouldnt even consider a SMART car if it gets less than 70MPG city, but thats just me.

  22. I am looking at getting one but am a bit curious here. And would it hurt to offer the Brabus. Europe always gets the hot cars.Power to WT. That is wht a motorcycle moves rapidly and gets great mpg.Being underpowered requires the engine t work harder and thus use more fuel.I,ll leave the pulpit now1

  23. Now if only we can take this hostility towards BIG OIL and and apply it to BIG EDUCATION.Take a look at Harvard’s books and you might not be ready to drag in every oil executive.Amen to NO subsidies for oil companies,however.

  24. Chris, You can’t import a European model. It has to conform to EPA standards by law. They will impound the car at the Port of entry and either you will have to pay BIG bucks to make it U.S. road worthy or they will destroy it. I know this from working for Land Rover North America for a number of years.We did bring test vehicles into the U.S., but for a limited time only and then they had to be rturned to the U.K.

  25. Wow, I never realized that the MPG on the SMART was terrible. I guess I’ll skip this one for the future. You can buy a Toyota, Honda, Hyundai or Kia with more features, seating for four and gas mileage in the mid 30’s or better. It’s a shame the SMART is a failure in MPG.

  26. Like others, I’ve been researching into these cars. I’m extremely disappointed. Other than being able to park in small spots, what a stupid car. I’ve been comparing it to the Prius. The Prius gets better mileage, can seat
    five people, four comfortably, has way bigger storage, and runs cleaner. Even after you factor in the extra price on the sticker, the Prius would seem far better value considering what all the extras you get.

  27. I have been driving the SMART in Los Angeles for appr. 2,000 miles.

    I get between 20.5 and 23 miles per gallon. Never got even close to 33 mpg.

    The dealer claims they have never heard of such a low mileage. The asked me

    to keep my gas receipts to prove that I am getting Premium Gas.

    This mileage is more then bad. I get 19 – 21 miles in my MB 230 Coup


    I will not let up with SMART Car until this issue gets resolved.

  28. Strange isn’t it. Saw one on the road the other day and thought boy that must get 60mpg for sure. How come I can get 37 out of my ’02 Saturn sedan but this barely cracks that…

  29. Why is it no one is outraged that the US version doesn’t get the MPG as the European models of Smart cars?

  30. I’m dismayed at the low level of discussion on this thread. It took many posts before somebody pointed out the simple fact of Imperial gallons being 25% larger than US gallons.

    The driver in L.A. getting 20mpg from his SMART gives no meaningful account of the kind of driving he’s doing. If he’s crawling in traffic at 3 or 4 mph with the A/C on, it might not be that surprising. He should probably ride a bike instead. As for the 19mpg he gets from his 230 coup – he didn’t say, but that might be in entirely different conditions.

  31. Hey Charles — Stuff it. I know your type … if “Chris from LA” did actually ride his bike you’d complain about all of the “extra” CO2 emmissions he was creating and tell him that he should be walking instead.

    “If he’s crawling in traffic at 3 or 4 mph with the A/C on, it might not be that surprising” — What’s your point? Only people who live in cool climates with no traffic need apply for your precious SMART car??? That doesn’t sound very practical to me.

    The point here is that when buying one of these vehicles you are looking at the cost (smaller size/functional utility/etc.) vs. the benefit (higher gas mileage/massaged ego) … if that equation is calculated under misguided fuel efficiency figures then the payoff to the consumer might not be worth the cost. In other words — you were sold a “bill of goods.”

    Therefore, “Chris from LA”‘s input is actually quite relevant and yours, well, it is quite useless.

  32. I think what the oil companies do is criminal. Whenever high gas prices are discussed nobody mentions the fact that they (oil companies) are padding the higher prices with higher profits for themselves.

    I was interested in the Smart car at one time. The gas mileage isn’t what it should be and the car would be safer on roads free of SUVs and big trucks – big trucks and SUVs that normally only have one or two people in them.

  33. Maybe the US should nationalize the oil co’s and redistribute all of the profits to “the people” … the “windfall” you speak of seems to be doing wonders for Venezuela and Russia. Lots of smiling faces … no poverty … a veritable Utopia … NOT!

  34. I drive a 99 Saturn SL2. With 150K miles on it, I am currently getting 40mpg (US gallons, combined driving) with this 10 year old technology.

  35. It’s a big relief to find out why the Smart Car gets such poor mileage in the U.S. Hopefully, eventually they will offer better models to us.

    The blame for our disappointing choice of cars here can be laid partially at the oil companies’ door for discouraging alternative fuels (yes, I saw Who Killed The Electric Car?), but we are also to blame for the appalling stuff that we Americans want to buy. Can you say “SUV”? Burning large quantities of fuel in order to appear stylish?

    My favorite all-time car was a 1985 Honda Civic CRX-HF. It was rated for 63mpg highway, and I could actually come close to that if I closed the windows and drove 55. I got in the mid-40s in town. It broke my heart to sell it after 12 years, but I had a baby and the CRX only had 2 seats. I still mourn it.

    Currently I have a 2004 Pontiac Vibe (it’s the same car as the Toyota Matrix), which had to be special-ordered so I could get a manual transmission and 2 wheel drive. I live in Jackson, Wyoming, but with good winter tires I am not hampered unduly in getting around. So many people move here from other places (cough cough, California) and feel they must buy a big four-wheel drive vehicle. Anyway, I keep track, and I get 30-35mpg in town and in the mid-40s on the highway. Better mileage than the Smart Car is reputed to have–though we do have one Smart Car locally, and the owner says he gets mileage similar to mine (never mind I have 3 times the cargo capacity).

    Unfortunately, they quit making my CRX model after about 3 years–the engine was pepped up so the mileage went down–and the same thing seems to have happened to the Vibe. While it is common to bemoan $4 gas, I think the country would be a lot better off if gas gets up to $8 or so, then maybe Americans would smarten up in their buying habits.

    Of course there’s still the question of all the existing gas-guzzlers. The government might need to do a buy-back the way they do with guns in some cities…

  36. I have to say that I’m in the market for a car and I’ve just started researching. I haven’t even looked at a car since 1999 at which time I bought a new Hyundai Accent. It was getting 35+ MPG and I think still is (haven’t checked with the current owner of the car).
    But I’m shocked and amazed at how the fuel efficiency of new cars has dropped in the last 9 years!!! How, in this world of ever better technology, can the fuel efficiency go down? There’s only one answer that I can think of…..

  37. We have had the smart for about 1 month in SF and are seeing about 20 MPG in the city. I will take a cue from Chris in LA b/c this really seems loooooooow. I would think we’d get AT LEAST, oh, i dunno, 28??!?

  38. Increased vehicle safety requirements have incresed vehicle weight and impacted the fuel economy figures for many small cars. Smart cars have very rigid passenger compartments and have shown off very favorably in crash tests. Their limited crush zones are offset to some degree by effective air bags. A local owner that imported theirs through Mexico reports 70 mpg highway on regular during several round trips from El Paso, TX to southeast Iowa. This was for a 2001 Smart Fortwo. Sad to see that the current models that are available in the US are getting so much less. I drive a Zap Xebra PK about 5 miles daily with an electricity cost of about 5 cents/mile. This does not include battery replacement costs a not insignificant consideration. The creature comforts of the Smart Fortwo are way above the Xebra and hearing the owners reports of 70 mpg mileage I was ready to sell the Xebra but not for 20 to 23 mpg.

  39. I current own a 2001 Chevy Metro LSI 1.3L 4 door sedan that does 35 city / 40 hwy. Who would drive that little car for the same mileage as the metro with a backseat, a very spacious trunk for its size and its not a rolling death trap when you hit an SUV.

  40. I’m confused too…Just owned a 2002 Toyota Echo, and averaged 38.5 mpg combined. What’s with this efficiency dysfunction? I too remember the 1993 Geo Metro, which performed at 53 mpg highway. And why is the Honda Insight no longer built?

  41. I’m confused by the lack of fuel economy in the United States. I travel quit a lot I just returned for GB and I rented a Vauxhall 4dr sedan and averaged 40+mpg for five wks of driving. Last year I spent five weeks in Germany and I rented a VW Golf TDI 4dr sedan and I averaged 51mpg and I never tried to drive economically. When the Smart cars were introduced to the USA I bought one because I know in the UK they get 60mpg, to my disappointment the best I can get out of mine is 38mpg on my best behavior. On top of that you have to use premium 92 octane fuel to get that mileage, the engine they chose to use has 10-1 compression and won’t run on regular gas, this is supposed to be an economy car. Perhaps if our Auto-makers were allowed to go bankrupt we would finally get some decent cars in this country.

  42. You know, I’m interested in the Diesel Smart because I’m gonna void that warranty and convert it to run WVO, like my current two automobiles. I’d really like to get that Smart Car to do it’s 35mpg petro-free.

    But check it out, I’m driving a 2001 VW Jetta right now and it gets 50mpg. And decades ago I drove a 1989 Ford Festiva that got 55mpg. I’m not sure why everyone is supporting this whole “green” consumer movement and not just cutting out the consumer cycled altogether, going with a used car, and getting (far) better gas mileage too?

    I mean, I know old cars look … older. But so do new cars in a few years:-)

  43. hello to all,

    i hope im not gettin too far off the subject,but if these cars(US version) get poorer gas mileage because they are “peppier” then shouldnt their HP ratings be higher? and how do some of you explain this… the US LS600h gets 21MPG combined whereas its european counterpart manages 25MPG? im not sure why this is the case , but i’m pretty sure that pepp has got nothing to do with it.

  44. Judging by a lot of the comments on this forum, many of you need to wake up to what’s really happening. I see a number of comments on here blaming “big oil” and “big auto” for gouging consumers. This is a common myth being perpetrated by the pablum media. Fact is you are blaming the wrong people.

    When they talk about “record oil profits” they are talking about gross profit. The truth is that the oil companies net profit after taxes is about the same or going down compared to what it used to be. The truth is that it’s the government that’s pocketing most of those “record oil profits.”

    As for the disappointing mileage people are getting with the Smart Car–it’s not surprising considering the draconian restrictions placed on emissions by the EPA. The fact is the government does not really want us to get better gas mileage. They want us to use more gasoline so they can collect more tax revenue. And it’s only going to get worse. As we speak, the government is holding a gun to Congresses head to pass measures that would make carbon monoxide a pollutant. If Congress fails to act on this, the President will authorize the EPA to begin penalizing companies that produce too much CO2. Since it requires energy to make virtually anything and energy consumption produces CO2, this will drive prices up on everything.

    This whole smart car thing is just another part of the Global Warming scam being pushed by the government. Fact is the solution does nothing to reduce CO2 emissions. In fact it could very well be increasing them. And its all being pushed to solve a problem. i.e. Man-Made Global Warming, that doesn’t exist.

    Still the same, I think I could save a lot of money by changing out the transmission and rear end gears on my riding lawn mower and then building a cab over it.

  45. I spent $6000 for a 10 year old Lincoln Mark VIII with less than 100k miles on it (grandma’s car, honest). I get 23 mpg as a daily driver and 30 on the highway.

    Figuring 12,000 miles driven per year, the difference between 23 and 33 mpg is 158 gallons. At $3 per gallon is $474 per year. Even for the starter model the break-even takes over 12 years. (Over 30 years for the top model.) It makes no sense (read – not smart).

    My car is luxurious, seats 4 very comfortably, and at 295 hp it is 225 hp more than the (not so) Smart car.

    I’ll stick with Detroit iron until we wise up.

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