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. John Nimtz – no, no, John, you’ve missed the point. People buy the Smart car because they wish to be environmentally friendly, and green. The only problem is – it isn’t!

  2. easy
    the Euros are lying to themselves with their gas milage. The ADAC ( German auto club) has proven that the real milage is 20 plus percent lower than the manufacturer claim in the US the mpg claims are much more realistic…

    no big oil not the “man” no conspirancy, except that the euros are getting shafted

  3. I agree that the US Smart’s mileage is disappointing, given how compromised the car is.

    However, one VERY important thing people should be aware of is that MPG is a misleading measure of efficiency; it’s far more instructive to think in terms of GPM (or the more user-friendly liters/100km).

    MPG gives a grotesquely distorted impression of the merits of improving already-decent mileage, versus getting rid of the real guzzlers. It looks more impressive to improve from 35 mpg to 60 mpg than from 10 to 12 mpg. But improving from 10 to 12 saves 167 gallons over 10,000 miles, while improving from 35 mpg to 60 mpg saves only 119 gallons over the same distance. Improving from 20 mpg to 30 mpg also saves 167 gallons over 10,000 miles. Improving from 50 mpg to 100 mpg (say, by converting your Prius to a plug-in hybrid) saves 100 gallons over 10K miles.

    The formula for gallons saved over a given distance by getting one mpg versus another is as follows:
    Distance*(MPGhi – MPGlo)/(MPGhi * MPGlo)

    Obviously, every gallon saved helps, and I’m not arguing against shooting for the highest possible mileage. Rather, I’m arguing that one Prius or Smart doesn’t make up for one Hummer; the math doesn’t pencil out that way. Gas guzzler taxes should be FAR higher to reflect this reality.

  4. The guy who made the comment on imperial gallons being 25% more than US must have different info than I do. I thought an imperial gallon was 4 liters, which are less than 5% larger than a US gallon. I was in line for gas in my Mini Cooper behind a Smart car and asked the gentleman what kind of mileage he was getting. He said 38 and does a lot of it on the freeway. My lowest on a tank of gas for my MINI was 37 and I have a short commute to work (less than 15 minutes) that barely warms up the car.

  5. Look folks, you’re not comparing apples to apples.

    What sells in the US is what people will sell. If a slow car doesnt sell, one wont stick around for long – its not a small investment to import or make cars, so few people will take the risk without promise of reward. Even those willing to drive slow cars often prefer ones with a bit more power.

    Second, Ive got a sneeking suspicion that due the VERY WIDE gap between american and european driving habits, that EPA estimations will rarely, if ever, mirror what is had on euro streets. The average american uses highspeed freeways more often, and for the most part are travelling much greater distances.

    Its no conspiracy of the oil companies to try to keep us shackled to oil. If they wanted, they could delivery half the inventory at 3 times the price and we would all have to figure something out – meanwhile, they have reduced overhead for the reduced need for transporting the goods, and would reap a higher margin. The oil companies will ALWAYS keep output where their profits are maximized like ANY BUSINESS SHOULD.

    Smart people realize that its in their best interest (assuming they want to save gas money) to be the ONLY one owning a fuel efficient vehicle. If everyone did, the price of fuel would just rise to meet an adjusted equilibrium. As far as the environment goes, its not the oil companies fault you keep buying their gas – its your own fault. They offer a product based on need, if there was no need and therefore no demand, they would cease to exist.

    SO why dont all the tree huggers quit whining about gas, and buy a horse or a plug-in electric vehicle? Im tired of other people wanting to take away MY CHOICES because of their OPINION. You drive your ecar, I wont. I will, however, keep riding my motorcycle to reduce my monthly gas costs.

    Market follows demand, got it people? So until the MAJORITY actually DEMANDS tree-hugger-friendly vehicles – they wont sell in high numbers. Its the responsibility of the PEOPLE – not politicians. If we continue to rely on the government to impose upon the auto industry, rather than letting buying trends of the people guide the auto industry, there wont be any manufacturers left (making a profit).

    Personally, Id be willing to bet that the majority of the impact on the environment has to do with our THROW AWAY mentality of vehicles. If we demanded decently efficient vehicles capable of many hundreds of thousands of miles prior to being scrapped – the total impact to the environment would be lowered a great deal more than building greater numbers of these plastic monsters that are neither recyclable, nor degradable. Now combine to that, very toxic batteries used to propel the electric motors that are full of heavy metals, both of which rely on unfriendly plastics and polymers that arent too ‘green’ either. Id bet that the total lifecycle impact of a 1972 ford F100 after 50,000 miles would be far less than that of one of these smart cars, hybrids, or other plastic maggots after 100,000 miles…

  6. I’ve had a Smart Car for a year now. For the first eight months it averaged about 38mpg. I thought that was pretty good considering some of the negative comments concerning their fuel efficiency. Strangely, over the last three months the average fuel consumption of my vehicle has dropped to 31 mpg. Driving habits and conditions seem to be the same. It’s beginning to match the efficiency of my Buick Ultra. The Smart car is still fun to drive.

  7. Hey guys,
    I just got my smart cabriolet and I love it. I am getting about 35 mpg average. I drive down I-95 some as well as around town. I got it for me because my wife has a 2004 chevy malibu getting about 26 average with commute and local driving. I am not rich and am not upper class. My wife makes $7.32 an hour @ about 38 hours a week. I work out on the road doing road construction. I drive a work only company truck. My vehicle was a 2003 GMC 1500 HD 4×4 6.0 liter. My average was about 10.5 for my week end ramblings. This was with NO off road mind you. I could not ask for my wife’s car without lip as she ‘might’ want to go to town. It was no problem for me to spend $80 in gas on the weekend. I loved my truck but said good bye black hole. I bought my smart not for environment but for my wallet. For me, Myrtle Beach is over an hour away. Me and my wife rode down the beach last weekend and cruised a little (ha ha me 40 and cruising) and came back home for 8 bucks. I love my smart car. Oh and I have wanted a Prius for about 3 years. But, I live in Dillon, SC and found that since it is a hybrid, that I would have to take it to Columbia for repairs and service. I am an ex-toyota fan. One other thing guys. We guys like to have heavy feet sometimes and feel a little power. There is something about the smart that I have not heard out of any person. This is the catch. The smart is a automated manual. It shifts the gears for you and decreases the throttle between shifts. The smart has plenty of pep for passing or whatever when in the manual mode.
    You can change gears with the shifter between the seats or with the finger shifter
    paddles right on the steering wheel. Hey guys, I know that it is different strokes for different folks, but, I love my smart.

  8. I just wanted to add that I really hate it for the people that are getting low mpg with their
    smart. I know how that feels. I had a 3500 chevy 5.7 liter 1 ton 15 passenger van that I drove back and forth to Raleigh, NC @ 2.5 hour
    trip getting 14.5 mpg. I got a chance transfer to a job 30 mins. away and traded my van for a new 2005 Toyota Tocoma. The window sticker had 16 city and 21 hwy. From day 1 I got 10 mpg. No matter where or how I drove, it was the same. From having the tail gate down and carefully easing on the gas to pulling a trailer loaded with furniture up to Hickory, NC (3 hour trip), it got within 1 mpg difference 9.5 to 10.5 mpg. I took it back several times to the dealer to have it checked. They told me that the computer tells that it was getting about 18 mpg. People that I knew who had one were getting 21 mpg. and at worse 18.
    I know that I would be greatly disappointed if my smart only got 20 mpg.

  9. My gosh! You folks,I guess,have have never seen “Who killed the electric car” and have forgotten the 1.0 Chevy Metro.I own a 1998 1.0 metro and it constantly “Averages” 48 mpg and it has 129,000 miles on the clock,and I love it,it has Air, power brakes and a good radio and has a back seat and has only cost me a set of brake shoes and rotors,which I installed myself in 35 minutes,in the last 8 years. I drive it in the city and on the Interstate and it can run comfortably at 70 mph.Without any doubt it’s the most economical car that we Americans have ever had a chance to own.
    Why did GM decide to discontinue it?Easy answer,Not enough mark up and too dependable.everyMetro owner that I have talked with says they like their Metro also.
    We will never see a 50mpg car any time soon again.Think about this,what would happen to States and Federal government revenue if all of a suddenly cars got 50mpg?THINK ABOUT IT!

  10. My 87′ toyota pickup has 250,000 miles on it and gets 26 city and 30 on the highway, Uhh it’s a pickup. My supercharged 5.0 mustang gets 21 on the highway, although only 18 city. My parents have a scion that gets 37mpg hwy, although I am not sure on that.

    I assumed a smart car got 50+ in the US

  11. Plain and simple, the global warming farce has forced the auto manufacturers to add additional emmision systems to our engines..Go google EGR valve and see what it does, those babies have been around since the 70’s and we just keep adding to it. Cars run hotter and use more fuel to burn off emmisions. I have a 2007 Nissan Versa that barely gets 23 in the city, my wife drives a 2009 Cobalt that averages the same. Thats about what they are rated for. Before you go blaming the auto industry, look at what fuel tax is, the national average is 46 cents per gallon. You think big government is going to want to give that up! I still have my old 91 Ford Festiva with 225,000 miles, that baby still gets 40-50mpg.

  12. One reason Euro fuel consumption vs. US is often “too optimistic” is the very simple fact that when converting Liter’s/100KM to MPG, the Europeans often base this on the British Gallon, which has about 5 liters instead of the US 4 (or so)

  13. Jacko – the US gallon differs from the Imperial gallon by 0.7 liters. (3.8 US 4.5 UK). This difference was factored into the original calculations.

  14. Check this out,I had a 93 park ave that got 36 on the hwy.And a 79 ford feista that got 39 and it also had a back seat.This dumb car,as I call it,is a product of the power of pure marketing.We have the ability to build a great small car,or bigger car,with so much better milliage,but the goverment lets big industry tell them what to do and thats self-serving. Buy the way,the smart car people have an electric car I seen at the auto show for a mere 44,000 and some change,wonder how many people will be lined up to buy that doodle bug?

  15. I think it is the smog regulations of the U.S that were implemented in the mid 70’s. I remember the old Honda Civic got 40 mpg, but now any car that size will struggle to get that much. I believe the EPA has adopted a tight emission test, requiring cars have egr devices and catalytic converters. All those do is just decrease the efficiency of the vehicle because the exhaust is being back-channeled. In order for the exhaust to go through the catalytic converter, the engine has to work harder to push the gases through; thus the decrease in gas mileage. I think that one straight exhaust pipe out of the engine would be beneficial for gas mileage. This was a very nice and insightful article.

  16. I haven’t read all the comments to see if this has been answered, but it is extremely simple. The EPA environmental / emissions regulations are very tough in the US, and all those systems have a significant impact on fuel economy on our cars. I worked for Honda for years, and the same model in Europe would always post much better fuel economy then their American counterparts. So the real question is where is the balancing point of lower emissions vs higher fuel economy. You can point at oil company conspiracy all day long (they might even be partially behind it…?), but the EPA has strict guidelines for emissions that have come at the cost of fuel consumption.

  17. I have owned a smart car for 1 year, bought it used. get 40 mph most of the time driving some city, rest hwy.It is bad it doesn`t get better gas miliage,but it beats the 23mph my other (suv) car gets, and beats the 17mph my old truck gets. Car is small and doesen`t like big wind. We love the little car and it is fun.

  18. My 2008 Smart Passion car, got about 32-33 mpg for about 6 months, it’s now down to about 22 mpg. Leff, from SF, thanks for posting. I thought I was the only one..

    P.S. I wouldn’t believe the mpg’s a smart owner tell’s you he get’s while talking at the pump..Kinda like “fish” stories..

  19. We’ve owned our Smart for almost 2 years now. The best mileage we’ve ever seen is 23 mpg city. Granted, Asheville NC is hilly. But I can’t believe hills would bring the fuel economy down that much.

    Anyone else get fuel economy that poor?

  20. …. Ok just so everyone doesn’t have to panic… that 60 mpg is on the european cycle. They measure differently. Their 60 mpg does equal our US EPA 60 mpg. Look up any car thats sold in both places. Ford Focus, Buick Regal, etc.

  21. Everyone on this blog is joking themselves if they think increasing the “peppiness” of such a small engine (3 cylinders) in such a small car would result in 36 mpg. That is a JOKE. People COMPLAIN about the acceleration in this car. I own an 87 Chevy Sprint that gets up to 55 mpg highway. The 0-60 time is much better in my car (which by the way is a four door). Also, the “Smart” car requires premium fuel. The fact that no cars get fuel economy like mine today makes me point my accusational finger at huge oil corporations and their business deals with government and car manufacturers. Smart? I think Stupid.

  22. Youall are just plain nuts. I drive a caddy escallade ext, gets 17.8 safe mpg and holds lots of tools plus luggage plus 4 passengers in comfort st 75 mph. For better mileage i drive a bmw m6 getting 26mpg at 80mph, sgain in relative safety. When i really want economy i drive my 1966 porsche 912 getting 30 mpg at 75mph.

  23. Say, I would purchase a European Diesel tomorrow if I could buy one in the USA, and had a dealer to service it.

  24. Yes, the European and EPA test cycles are totally different. My CRZ is rated 48 MPG in Europe, 37 in US. I have found the US ratings useful for comparison only, I’ve never had a small car which didn’t blow them away. My “34” MPG Pontiac Fiero easily got 45-48 MPG on trips. My “37” MPG Honda CR-Z gets 45-48 MPG commuting to work (haven’t taken a trip yet).

  25. I’m an American living in Europe for 20 years. I have a Peugeot 107 diesel and get about 55-60 MPG (yes American gallons). UK shows this car getting 70+ but that’s imperial gallons. There is a lot of confusion when figuring fuel consumption if European cars vs. US but it’s a fact that European cars get better fuel consumption. I think until US consumers demand more fuel efficient cars we will continue with these gas hogs (by comparison). That won’t happen (in my opinion) until we are paying the prices we pay in Europe (I pay around 10 bucks a gallon for diesel in UK). It’s a shame humans don’t decide to conserve before their wallets are hit…

  26. Holly – well said. I, too, owned a diesel car (a Citroen) when living in Britain and getting over sixty miles to the gallon. European engine technology has been way ahead of America for years. Only now are they beginning to catch up. Of the very few diesel cars in this country, all are European imports.

  27. HI,

  28. I would consider buying one when they make them available with a manual transmission. And no, paddle shifters connected to an automatic transmission is not a manual transmission.

  29. With Pulstar plugs, Okada multispak ciol over plugs K&N airfilter do not dump air filter bos. A external scoop. a good straight filter to throddle body hose instead of plastic chamber to hide componels, ceramic coated bottom of lid on bonet in rear. Intake ceramic cating to keep air cool from outside Thermal Tech or Tech Line. My gas millage is 45 with air ON and manual shifting on normal asperated version. My record before any mods was 63 on Hyway cool morning for 300 miles at 70mph. I know my car would pass cert withpout cat. The cat is abad device making its own bad bypoducts. Liting enginges using more precision parts using latest technology like multispark coil overs Pulstart plug no other comes close. Hotter spart my gap is .7 and my fuel is burned befor exhaust opens. ceramic compons to keep heat out, help heat transfer from radiators ceramic films to fill in rocky mountains on seemingly polish jornals, ceramics to keep heat oin combustion chamber and reflect heat from bottom of piston and ceramic to help oil not to sick on sides of rods bottom of oil pan, total seal rings. better balancing and fluid dampner. croyogenic hardners. I am getting to build a streetCobra like the oness from factory not race. My 302 will have efficiency of of twice a normal engine. Rotter rockers forged instag of cast .Good valve sealing. Mud flow finishing of intake casting marks. matching of port for exhaust with gasket, why does AFR head flow twice as good as GT40 heads put by Ford in a 100K GT40? Why was engine not cry ohardended, balanced, quality fluid damper, Hollow body valves filled with sodium. ceramic compounds . Headers to match exhaust flow and suck out used burned mixture. Less overlap required because mixture burns quicker and complete. No Cat needed. Everything I mentioned on production car is $100 dollars and more than offset by no CAT. I am sure when I put headers a good flow cat ( another problem a Better muffler and ceramic coat entire exhaust inside and out and make of stainless to last forever. The car will get over 50 mpg and have half the emissions or better. Good engineering beats patch work any day that is what a CAT is a patch that a whole industry exist for which is not required if technology is applied,

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