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Smart Car – Update

Back on January 27th, 2008, I wrote an article[1] on the new (to America) Smart Car from the German company, Mercedes Benz. The post spurred a certain amount of comment, but no-one really attempted to answer the leading question behind the article: why does the Smart obtain a combined town/highway gas consumption of 60 mpg in Europe, but only 36 mpg in the U.S.A?

Over the last couple of months a few more comments on the subject have arrived, including one from ‘Shawn’, who attempted to do exactly that. I am reproducing it here simply because the post was written so long ago few readers would be likely to revisit it, and both Shawn’s comment, and others, are worthy of perusal:

“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 bringing the high mileage diesel wouldn’t work either.

Even Americans looking for a small commuter 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 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.”

Shawn’s comment is well thought-out, and I agree entirely with his opinion of American attitudes to diesel engines. Having owned two turbo-diesel cars in Britain, with superb performance and terrific gas mileage, I could never understand why Americans shunned them. Whether, in the long run, they will prove to be environmentally friendlier than petroleum is debatable, but short term the greater mpg has to be an asset.

There are some areas of the comment where I am less able to concur.

For instance: the US version actually seems less ‘peppier’ than its Euro counterpart. ConsumerGuide Automotive states that the “Passion”, has a 0-60 acceleration figure of 12.8 seconds (according to Smart). CGA’s road test showed the Passion to be struggling to reach that figure[2]

“Smart pegs the ForTwo’s 0-60 mph acceleration at 12.8 seconds; that figure jibes with our test experience. Acceleration is sluggish from a stop and is plagued by annoying bogging and surging at every shift whether transmission is in manual or automatic mode. ForTwo’s small engine struggles to provide adequate highway passing power.”

Even if the US version manages to make 60mph in 12.8 seconds, that puts it only 0.5 secs faster than the UK version of the ForTwo Passion (the model tested by CGA)[3].

Another commentator, ‘yev’ wrote:

“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”

Now there’s a possibility, though to date I have found no way to verify the plausibility of that statement, and ‘yev’ offers no evidence to support his assertion.

One regular commentator to Sparrow Chat, ‘Jerry’, rightly asserted:

“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.”

Jerry is, of course, quite right. The European gallon equals approximately 1.2 US gallons and does account for a percentage of the poorer mileage figure of the US Smart, though definitely not all.

For example, if we rate the UK car at 60mpg, and the US version at 40 (which is kind) the difference in gallon measurements only raises the latter figure to 48mpg.

Is the loss of 12 mpg due to poorer quality catalytic converters, as ‘yev’ suggests? Or is it due to abortive attempts at ‘pepping’ up the car for the US market, as ‘Shawn’ indicates?

I guess the jury is still out on this one. Would the next witness care to step forward?

[1] “Smart Car – But No Smart Gas Mileage” Sparrow Chat, 27th January, 2008″

[2] “2008 Smart ForTwo Road Test”, CGA, 12th March, 2008.

[3] “smart fortwo passion (71bhp)”, CarPages

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7 Replies to “Smart Car – Update”

  1. Remember the imperial gallon and the US gallon are different. Are you measuring the same. The US is .201 larger which, actually, would mean a higher mileage number. Starting with the 451 model I think the engines will be the same. Is that correct? If so the comparison should be clear by April 2009.

  2. Al B – yes, the difference in gallon quantities was taken into account. Engine blocks, bores, etc are identical, I understand, though what they do to the peripherals is anyone’s guess. Personally, I’d like an answer to this question before 2009.

  3. You guys are way more car- and tech-savvy than me, but I’ve been driving my Smart for two months. It so sluggish from the start. I don’t mind, but I think folks seeing it jerk to life doesn’t make them envious. That said, I’m getting better with the manual trans. (I’ve ONLY driven a stick for my entire life.)

    As far as passing folks… once I’m up to ramming speed on the freeway, I’m passing obviously suprised folks right and left. And while I do mostly city driving, I’m getting about 41 miles to the gallon.

    And I’m good with that.

  4. Syd Kearney – welcome to Sparrow Chat. You’re obviously enamored of your Smart, and I found reading your blog very enjoyable. For those readers interested in the Smart car, I can highly recommend it. There is also valuable insight into the vagaries of certain motor insurance companies – including some big names!

    41 in the city seems better than the rating and would probably compare (allowing for gallon-size) with European models.

    Thanks for the info, Syd.

  5. The smart car hits the street of America this winter. World travelers out there will probably recognize the mini-vehicle from the streets of Europe, where they can be found navigating narrow alleyways and parking in small spaces.

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