SAN FRANCISCO – It takes a lot to excite the curiosity of Californians, but the tiny Smart car manages nicely during a drive through this famous port city.

Bentleys fail to turn as many heads as this pint-sized peoplemover, confirming the marketing credo that driving the Smart Fortwo “makes you feel like a rock star.”

That’s all well and good, until the novelty wears off, or until you roll up to a busy intersection in the left-turn lane as an 18-wheeler going the opposite direction is attempting a right turn and wants to share your turning lane for a few tense face-to-headlight moments.

As the massive truck inches nearer – close enough to identify the species of insects squished on the grille – our sudden sense of humility, smallness and vulnerability takes hold. The rock star moment is long gone.

The Fortwo is very small – small enough to park two of them perpendicular in one curbside spot. It’s fashionably quirky, reasonably inexpensive, gets decent fuel economy and is surprisingly comfortable.

But those things don’t matter if Americans perceive the Fortwo to be dangerously incompatible with big pickups and SUVs. The curb weight of the ’08 Toyota Sequoia, for instance, is more than three times that of the Fortwo. Even a high-school physics flunky understands the Darwinian stakes.

In reality, Daimler AG engineers lavished attention on the Fortwo as they designed the U.S. version in Irvine, CA, to ensure its safety matches that of its Mercedes sister brand.

Some of the features are ingenious, starting with the egg-shaped “tridion” safety cell that surrounds occupants like the hard shell of a walnut. Smart engineers love to play a slow-motion video of a Fortwo barrel-rolling across pavement in a 31-mph (50-km/h) crash test.

Despite the horrific sight of an airborne vehicle shedding broken bits of plastic trim, the Fortwo weathers the trauma remarkably well, with no broken glass and no intrusions into the cabin. A dummy behind the wheel would sustain only minor injuries, the auto maker insists.

The structure of the rear-wheel-drive Fortwo also demonstrates an uncanny ability to dissipate and safely absorb crash energy.

Occupants sit 8 ins. (20 cm) higher than in a comparable small car, allowing the structure to manage most of the force below the passenger compartment. Remarkably, the 8.7-gallon (33.0L) fuel tank occupies this same space, right below the seats.

This higher seating position does plenty to convince the driver that the tiny Fortwo actually might hold its own in a collision.

The short wheelbase – although it contributes to poor handling on uneven pavement – actually is a blessing in a side impact: The front and rear axles are so close together that the other vehicle is bound to strike an axle, allowing it to absorb more crash energy.

In a rear collision, the entire suspension, which integrates the axle, gearbox and a transverse-mounted all-aluminum 1.0L 3-cyl. gasoline engine (manufactured in Japan by Mitsubishi Motors Corp.), is intended to crumple forward, sliding underneath the floorpan. The wheels, themselves, act as crumple zones.

In frontal collisions, the wheels and suspension move as a unit in the same manner, and sturdy door hinges help absorb crash energy. Cross-braced steel doorframes provide protection in both frontal and side collisions.

Smart executives say the Fortwo was designed to meet all U.S. crash standards, and they insist the risk of injury is no greater than in an average passenger car.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has performed crash tests with the Fortwo yet. But it has long since passed muster in European evaluations.

Standard safety features include anti-skid electronic stability control, dual-stage frontal airbags and head/thorax side airbags.

U.S. consumers who are satisfied with the safety of the Fortwo may find other facets of the vehicle less agreeable.

First, the drive experience inspires little confidence or excitement. The Fortwo (with its rack-and-pinion setup) understeers badly, and the engine lets out a heavy drone under 2,000 rpm in low-speed city traffic. After a while, the sound grates like nails on a chalkboard. The 70-hp engine leaves no impression that it wants to be pushed hard.

The 5-speed automated manual transmission allows paddle shifting on the steering wheel. Good thing, because changing gears with the floor-mounted shift lever is not an option, unless the adult passenger doesn’t mind you rubbing his thigh with every shift.

The other option is to leave the transmission in automatic mode. In all instances, the transmission shifts with the accuracy of buckshot. Changing gears is a crude and painfully slow affair, contributing to unnecessary lurching. Rock stars do not travel like this.

Smart executives say the automated manual is the best possible transmission for a vehicle with such a short wheelbase and high center of gravity.

A conventional automatic transmission with a torque converter was out of the question because it would have been too big, too heavy and inefficient.

Likewise, a conventional manual transmission, they say, would cause even more lurching because a human being cannot possibly open and close the clutch any faster with a traditional 3-pedal layout. The automated manual does its work in less than a second, but it feels much slower.

Another problem is the price. The Fortwo coupe starts at $11,590 and tops out at $16,590 for the convertible.

For the same money, U.S. buyers can have a Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, Chevy Aveo, Volkswagen Rabbit, Dodge Caliber or Ford Focus – all of which offer vastly more room, a back seat, better drivability and four doors. Of course, none of those vehicles call attention to themselves like the Fortwo.

’08 Smart Fortwo
Vehicle type rear-engine, rear-drive, 2-passenger coupe
Engine 1.0L 3-cyl. all-aluminum
Power (SAE net) 70 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque 68 lb.-ft (92 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automated manual
Wheelbase 73.5 ins. (187 cm)
Overall length 106.1 ins. (269 cm)
Overall width 61.4 ins. (156 cm)
Overall height 60.7 ins. (154 cm)
Curb Weight 1,808 lbs./ 820 kg
Base price $11,590
Fuel economy 33/40 mpg
(7.1-5.8 L/100 km)
Competition Nothing like it
Pros Cons
Efficient use of space Understeers badly
Gives celebrity status Bigger cars at same price are better
Good fuel economy Annoying automated manual gearbox

And then there’s the fuel economy question. Smart executives say the Fortwo is rated as an ultra-low emission vehicle and will achieve 33/40 mpg city/highway (7.1-5.8 L/100 km), based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s new-for-2008 test procedures.

That’s good fuel economy, but only marginally better than the Fit, Versa and Yaris. Whether we achieved those numbers during a 2-day drive here is hard to say, as the vehicle is not equipped with a trip computer to calculate fuel economy.

New diesels and hybrid-electric vehicles already can achieve better mileage than the Smart, while providing far better performance.

The interior reflects an attempt to maximize the usefulness of every square inch of space. Climbing in and out is easy; headroom is adequate; the cargo hold can accommodate a few grocery bags; and the center console cleverly integrates a large functional cupholder that holds two drinks.

An occupant the size of John Goodman, naturally, would feel cramped, especially in the passenger seat. The two seats are smartly offset by several inches to improve shoulder room, but a passenger that big has no place to put his left arm, except behind the driver’s seat. That gets old fast.

Produced in Hambach, France, the Fortwo goes on sale in the U.S. Jan. 14, distributed through the Penske Automotive Group and a dealer pool expected to number 74 by the end of 2008.

Good things don’t always come in small packages. The Fortwo is tidy, cute and well engineered. But it might be too expensive for economy-minded Americans, especially with exchange rates making it difficult for Europeans to sell vehicles profitably in the U.S.

But hats off to Smart for offering U.S. consumers a stylish, diminutive alternative to gas-guzzling SUVs. Even if it sells poorly, the Fortwo deserves credit for answering America’s call for a small car that gets good fuel economy and looks cool doing it.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com