First Drive: 2017 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet Is the Smallest Way to Go Topless

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2017 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet
The 2017 Smart Fortwo Cabriolet is the smallest convertible you can buy in the U.S. | Nick Kurczewski/Auto Cheat Sheet

Car companies love racetracks and beachside roads lined with palm trees. Smart, on the other hand, decided we needed a dose of old-fashioned New York traffic and parking problems during our day with the new 2017 Fortwo Cabriolet.

This two-passenger coupe is officially the smallest way to go topless in the U.S. car market. It’s also one of the cheapest choices in the dwindling market for cars that let you fold the top down. Stretching only 106 inches long, the Fortwo Cabrio starts at a reasonable $18,900 (excluding destination charge). Three trim levels are offered, and of course, they have cutesy names such as Passion, Prime, and Proxy.

Even loaded with options in the top Proxy trim level — which includes larger alloy wheels and a trim-specific front grille — the Cabrio version of Smart’s agile city-car would be hard pressed to crack the $25,000 barrier.

But is it worth it, at any price?

Yes, but with a few “buts.” There is only so much you can do with the Smart’s 89 horsepower turbocharged three-cylinder engine. Performance is leisurely, to say the least (or the most). Our highway driving was limited, though we usually had enough engine poke to dice with bustling traffic throughout Brooklyn, scene of our test drive. Finding prime parking spots are more in keeping with the Smart’s overarching mantra, if we’re being honest. Relax, let the cabbie cut you off, and get back to soaking up the sun.

2017 Smart Fortwo Cabriole
Starting at $18,900, the Smart Cabrio leaves plenty of budget left for roller-coaster rides | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet

The handling is direct, though not as sharp as you’d expect in a car this size. A Mazda Miata, it is not. But this Smart Cabrio does have an incredible turning radius of only 22.8 feet. We reveled in every wrong turn, simply because it gave us another excuse to crank the wheel and zing this little car in the opposite direction — sometimes to a symphony of honked horns, obviously.

There is plenty of room inside for two adults — legroom and shoulder room are ample. The seats did feel flat and lifeless, so long drives could tax the fortitude of your back and backside. Again, out city-centric driving loop was more a test of mental stamina than anything physically taxing.

Putting the top down is a breeze and is done with the simple push of a button. All it takes is 12 seconds for the roof to fold backwards, and stack itself above the rear opening for the trunk. It can be operated at any speed, and a sunroof button allows it to be partially opened. If you want a total open-air adventure, two rails running above the side windows can be removed and stowed in the trunk. They’re a little finicky to deal with, so we doubt many Smart Cabrio owners will bother taking them off.

2017 Smart Fortwo Cabriole
No parking? No problem! At least not when you’re driving the 8.8 foot long Smart Cabrio | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you haven’t already noticed, this generation of Smart is notably wider than the one it replaces. A stretch in overall width by approximately 4 inches helps give the Smart a more planted and stable feel, even if the larger dimensions tend to defeat the purpose of opting for such a tiny car in the first place.

No, you can’t park this Smart head-on into a parallel parking spot. That was a curious (i.e. not always legal) trick of the shorter first-generation Smart Fortwo. Generally, we like the blockier lines of this current model: The square-shaped headlamps and taillights add a more grown-up presence to the Fortwo. The superfluous stubby hood is less appealing, unfortunately.

A whole lot more fun could also have been had with our test car’s cabin. Choose your colors wisely, because our bright yellow model had drab black fabric seats and tons of black plastic on the dash. A little body-colored plastic can go a long way toward making a cheap cabin look, well, a whole lot less cheap! Fiat does it admirably in the similarly cute and budget-minded 500 coupe and cabriolet.

2017 Smart Fortwo Cabriole
Fun in the city, the Smart Cabrio is more about being small and nimble, not tire-shredding fast | Nick Kurczewski/Autos Cheat Sheet

Over bumps and potholes, there is only so much the Smart can be expected to do. Cresting several wide speed bumps was hilarious, if only because the process seemed so drawn out and dramatic given the Smart’s tiny wheelbase. The nose pointed up, the car inched onto the summit of the speed bump, and then downward we would go again. Strange, but charming. All in all, you don’t get shaken to pieces, though this is definitely a bumpier ride than an average sub-compact.

It does feel remarkably solid, thanks to the steel safety cell that forms the chassis. There are six airbags in total and Smart has made Crosswind Assist standard. Working with the brakes and electronic stability control, this avoids the hair-raising moments that come when a tractor trailer goes roaring past in the opposite direction.

It’s hard to believe we got this far in the review and didn’t mention the Smart’s automatic transmission. The previous one was bizarre in the extreme. There were perceptible pauses between each shift, almost as if the car was sighing and begrudgingly handing you the next gear. That bad behavior is gone from this model, though the six-speed dual-clutch remains only “OK” in terms of shift speed and smoothness.

Smart car
Fashionable and functional in a city, the Smart aims for a narrow segment of the car market | Nick Kurczewski/Cheat Sheet Autos

Fuel economy is also good, but nothing to write home about given the 33 MPG city/38 highway averages. That’s fine for most small cars, except the Smart’s emphasis on being tiny makes you wish for mileage that’s truly stellar and worth bragging about. You also have to feed it a minimum 91 octane fuel rating. Really?!?

A Smart Fortwo targets a narrow slice of the automotive market, with its dueling themes of part fashion statement/part urban runabout. The convertible version narrows that focus even further. Limited seating capacity rules it out for many buyers who want a rear seat, no matter how small and inhospitable it might be. Performance is modest, Smart estimates the Cabrio with automatic transmission needs 11.6 seconds to roll from zero to 60 miles per hour. OK, that’s really slow. Except during city driving, you don’t notice the horsepower deficit nearly as much. And remember, any open parallel parking spot is yours for the taking.

For the money, there are more sensible options out there. But if you want open-air thrills in as tiny a shape as possible, nothing looms larger than this Smart Cabrio.