If you’ve seen a micro-car, one of those tiny vehicles that looks like someone took a meat cleaver to the back end, you might have understood its value in a congested, parking-deprived place like South Beach but wondered if — or why — anyone would take the car on a trip.
I, too, wondered how much utility a micro-car would have on a road trip, so I took one of each on a weekend getaway. I drove a Smart Fortwo to Sebring, about 150 miles north on U.S. 27, and a Scion iQ across Alligator Alley to Marco Island, just south of Naples. The manufacturers lent me their cars.
The usual reaction I got from friends and colleagues was “How could you possibly feel safe on the highway in that toy car?” The Smart car is just under 9 feet long; the iQ is 10 feet. But I survived with no close calls, no desperate maneuvers to dodge tractor-trailers, no pulling off the road to let my heart slow down.
And yes, there was room for luggage for two.
Not that there weren’t drawbacks. The gas mileage, in the mid 30s and among the best for gasoline-powered engines, is still not as economical as you’d expect from such tiny cars, especially the Smart Fortwo, which has absolutely no get-up-and-go. For longer trips, or if you’re a heavy-duty shopper when you travel, luggage space could be a problem.
But for a weekend getaway for two, travel in a micro-car is just fine. Their biggest advantages for travel are the same as for urban living: ability to squeeze into tiny spaces between sloppy parkers and space-hogging trucks; ability to turn and maneuver in tight spaces; fuel economy. And let’s admit it: They’re both cute — plus the Fortwo is customizable with modular body panels and unique body wraps.
This article is not a review; I don’t claim any automotive expertise. The purpose of my test drive of these two cars was to evaluate how well they perform on road trips.
Here’s a rundown:
Space for luggage: The Fortwo is a hatchback with space for two carry-on suitcases and maybe a tote bag or two. At least the same amount of luggage will fit in the back seat of the iQ, although more awkwardly; a larger space can be created by folding down the rear seats and removing the head rests.
Comfort on long drives: Both were comfortable, the Fortwo a little more so. I didn’t use the back seat of the Scion.
Highway driving: I needed a long merging lane for the Smart Car to get up to highway speed and more lead time for making a left turn against oncoming traffic. The Scion, while not a fast car, did better with both. Once they reached 70 mph, both performed fine, although the Scion was noisier and neither was smooth.
Fuel economy: The federal government puts the Fortwo at 36 miles per gallon for combined city/highway driving and the iQ at 37 mpg. Here’s the big difference: The Scion iQ takes regular unleaded gasoline, but premium is recommended for the Smart Fortwo.
Safety: I sat high enough that I felt visible on the highway — unlike in a low-slung car such as a Miata or a Corvette. Since there is so little car behind the front seats, a vehicle running up on my bumper would have been RIGHT THERE in the mirror; fortunately, none did. The Smart Fortwo is essentially a roll cage with eight airbags (six in the convertible), and the iQ has 11 airbags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Scion four out of five stars for overall safety, and the Fortwo, which was not ranked in all categories, three stars for safety in a rollover.
What I like best about the Smart Car is its forthrightness. It seats only two — that’s why it’s called the Fortwo. Scion calls the iQ, which is only 14 inches longer, the world’s smallest four-seater. It has a bench back seat that can hold two only if they have no knees. It’s like Hooters claiming to be about owls. I’d like them a lot better if they just flat out admitted “We’re all about breasts, except when it comes to chicken, and then we’re about wings.”
With no pretense of a back seat, the Smart Car’s front seats are comfortable and surprisingly roomy. That surprised my 6-foot-1 friend, who apparently expected to have to roll himself into a ball to fit, but instead stretched and commented favorably on how much head room the car had.
What I like best about the iQ is its fourth cylinder. It’s a zippy car. The Fortwo, with only three cylinders, is not. The Fortwo has a five-speed automatic transmission, with the option of using paddles to change gears. But changing through the gears while you’re accelerating, using the paddles or not, is slow and clunky.
Daimler introduced the Smart Car in the United States in 2008. It did poorly and eventually fizzled. Daimler’s Mercedes division reintroduced it here late last year, and this month is introducing an all-electric version.
The Scion iQ, a member of the Toyota family, has been available in Europe and Japan for a couple years. It made its U.S. debut in California at the end of 2011. Scion has an electric prototype but plans only a gasoline-powered engine for the foreseeable future.
A previous version of this story gave the wrong date for the Smart Fortwo’s introduction in the United States.