Yes, the Smart ForTwo is fuel efficient but that's just one side of the coin. In terms of safety, particularly for the driver, it's clearly not the best choice out there.
This is kind of an odd one. The Smart ForTwo consistently rates pretty high in crash tests. The "Tridion safety cell" which protects the passenger compartment really is quite strong, and testing shows very little cabin intrusion during accidents in most cases. But even though the Smart is an improvement of about a thousand times over the old Isetta, real-world injury statistics are much higher than crash tests would suggest, highlighting the shortcomings of crash testing in general.
The ForTwo is most certainly a small car, but consider this: It is 9 inches wider, 8 inches taller and a full 18 inches longer than a BMW Isetta. It weighs more than double what the old BMW weighed as well. Yet this probably doesn't make you feel any better about the Smart ForTwo, just worse about the Isetta. That's reasonable. The Smart ForTwo first debuted in 1998 at the Paris Motor Show. It has a rear-mounted three-cylinder engine and just two seats (hence the name). When first introduced, it produced 45 horsepower, although this has risen to 83 horsepower in current turbocharged models.
As a percentage, that's a huge gain, but it still probably isn't something you're going to take to the drag strip. The car is short enough that it can be parked head-on or reversed into parallel parking spots, something originally seen as a selling point, but which is in fact illegal in quite a few places where the Smart is sold. The car has received support from environmentalists, but this has lessened a bit recently. It seemed that these people were eager to support any small car, and the smaller the better, but an EPA combined rating of 36mpg isn't really all that great.
It's a damn sight better than a Hummer, but just as some cars look faster than they really are, the Smart's styling is writing an eco-check that its actual mileage can't cash. Smart brags that the ForTwo is the most fuel-efficient two-seater on the US market, carefully avoiding the subject of much more practical cars which get significantly better fuel economy. Environmentalists have, in recent years, been giving up on supporting the Smart, and they are wise to do so. When it comes to safety, we can find more cases of this careful omission practice. Smart, as well as a few holdout environmentalists, will tell you, for example, that the ForTwo got top marks for passenger safety in an IIHS crash test.
Thus begging the question, to anyone paying attention, what about the driver? Well, it wasn't good, but even crash tests don't tell the whole story of what can happen in a crash. What it comes down to is crumple zones. These exist for a reason, and the ForTwo has very little to crumple. The idea here is not to prevent cabin intrusion, but rather to absorb the energy of the crash. In the absence of such energy-absorbing measures, that energy is transmitted through your body. In that IIHS test mentioned earlier, the Smart collided with a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The smart was flung through the air, rotating 450 degrees in the process.
It was here that the driver rating suffered, as the dummy was thrown around the cabin, smacking its head against the steering wheel. The energy of the crash just had nowhere else to go. The senior vice president of vehicle research at the IIHS, David Zuby, said it best: "A really, really poorly designed or insufficiently designed large- or medium-sized car may be more or less protective than the best-designed small car, but that's something that you're not going to be able to tell just by looking at crash-test ratings. So all things being equal, if you're concerned about safety, you want a bigger, heavier car."
The simple fact of the matter is that minicars like the Smart have an occupant death rate in accidents that is twice that of bigger cars which have gotten the same ratings in crash tests. So the Smart might be exceedingly well-designed and strong for a minicar, but to paraphrase the great Doug Stanhope, that's like being the prettiest Denny's waitress. Being the best doesn't necessarily make you any good.