I've put "smart" in quotation marks for a reason. Is it smart? Here we have a very small vehicle in which storage space and room for more than two occupants are sacrificed in return for a promise of great economy. Is the trade off worth it?
Let's assume that economy is the only consideration for the purchaser of the smart. The purchaser will then select the smart fortwo Pure, with a base price of $11,990. I'll add A/C, the "Silver metallic tridion safety cell" (though I don't know exactly what it is, since it has the word "safety" in it and everyone I've spoken with is concerned about the smart fortwo's safety, I'll add it), the alarm system and the premium radio. I'll leave out the heated seats, power steering, and metallic paint. The options bring the total to $13,420. We should note that most people don't tend to get the base model, but this will put the best face on the purchase of a Pure.
So what do I get for my $13,420? This is not a car review blog, so I'll only look at the fuel economy aspect of the purchase. The EPA estimates the car to provide 33 m.p.g. in the city, 41 m.p.g. on the highway, and 36 m.p.g. combined. For comparison, the Volkswagen Jetta Diesel gives 30 m.p.g. in the city and 41 m.p.g. on the highway. Admittedly, some won't purchase a diesel. For those, how about the Mini Cooper at 28 m.p.g. city and 37 m.p.g. highway or the Toyota Yaris at 29 m.p.g. city and 36 m.p.g highway? Of course, going the hybrid route will up the mileage ante, but also the price, so we'll ignore those for this post. The low end base price of the Jetta Diesel is $21,990, the Mini Cooper is $18,550, and the Yaris $13,005. The Jetta and the Mini are significantly more costly than the Pure, so we'll go with the Yaris. The base cars in this range are all pretty bare, so we'll figure a similar amount in options and compare the Yaris at about $14,450 and the Pure at $13,420.
The Yaris offers seating for five (nominally) and storage area with a 1.5 liter four cylinder engine. The smart fortwo offers seating (ready now) for two, storage for a few grocery bags, and a 1.0 liter three cylinder engine. Clearly, the Yaris offers significantly more utility at a price that's not dramatically higher. Thus, the big incentive for the purchase of a Pure, other than kitsch, would have to be the fuel economy.
It's recommended that the Pure, whose US engine configuration has a relatively high compression ratio of 10:1, be fueled with premium. Thus, purely from a cost point of view, the Pure is handicapped by about 8% (depending, of course, on actual prices) compared to the Yaris which uses regular grade fuel despite its 10.5:1 compression ratio. Assuming that regular is selling for $2.45/gallon and premium for $2.65/gallon, the Pure will burn $0.0646 worth of premium fuel per highway mile while the Yaris burns $0.0681 worth of regular. In the city, the Pure burns $0.0803 worth as the Yaris burns $0.0845 worth. Because the Pure is fundamentally designed as a city commuter car (though I see them on the freeway) let's analyze a 10,000 mile year (lower than the mean but reasonable for a city car) consisting of 90% city miles. The Pure would burn $723 worth of premium while the Yaris burns $829 worth of regular. The Pure saves $106 in the year, not enough to make a car payment but I would certainly bend over to pick up an envelope with that amount in it.
In terms of carbon dioxide, the Pure would emit something like 5,490 pounds during this "typical" year while the Yaris was emitting about 6,250 pounds, a difference of 760 pounds. The average US family emits something like 22,880 tons of carbon dioxide per year (though I question the accuracy of that figure) so the 0.38 tons saved by the Pure compared to the Yaris seems rather small. In comparison to replacing an incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent though, it's a big deal.
Is the smart fortwo Pure (or the other higher priced models) worth the sacrifice? For someone who must spend lots of time (and miles) alone or with another person in a car and doesn't anticipate a lot of highway driving, or as a second car in a two car family, it may be a good choice economically. Is its 33 m.p.g. city and 41 m.p.g. highway mileage as good as I'd expect from such a diminutive vehicle? My initial gut reaction was "no" but I'll take a look analytically in another post.