When I was hired at Jalopnik, my coworkers and you the readers knew me as the lady with four Smart Fortwos. Yet, I seemingly pulled a switcheroo on all of you by amassing a collection of Volkswagens. Well, dear reader, fear not because I just added a fifth Smart to my fleet. This one is the diesel that never made it to the United States.
Yes, I said fifth. I would be lying if I said I’m not currently researching registrations to see if anyone else is this crazy. I’d say that I can explain, but I can’t. But I’m happy that I’m addicted to these and not something that can’t be stored in various nooks and crannies like a Ford Excursion.
The story of me buying this little car actually starts in 2008. Back then, I was a 15-year-old high school freshman. I didn’t really know anything about myself and had spent years in school being bullied for more reasons than I can even remember. I found comfort in cars and technology. Back then, my dream cars were rides like the first-generation Audi TT and the McLaren F1.
Then, in the spring of that year my dad wrecked yet another car. Suddenly, we were on the look for another car. And since local fuel prices were high — higher than they are right now in my area — we were on the look for a fuel efficient vehicle. That’s when my mom said that we were going to look at these new “smart cars” at a dealership in a classy town.
Going to that dealership and quasi-art gallery changed my life. Literally overnight, my dream car became the Smart Fortwo, chassis code 451, and I made it my life’s mission to get one.
It didn’t take long for me to get involved with the brand. I joined an enthusiast forum brimming with people who had experienced a Smart in Europe and were finally getting their hands on one. Others just wanted to save money at the pump. And a lot of others were like me and were fascinated by the cars. It was a sort of wild west in there. Some people began outfitting their cars with turbos. Others got tow hitches to pull personal watercraft. Some dropped their cars to the ground and outfitted them with custom interiors, custom audio and even Lamborghini-style scissor doors.
And SmartUSA wasn’t run like other car companies. Back in those days, it was common for a Smart owner to personally know SmartUSA’s CEO and to know some of the inner workings of the company. SmartUSA was like a friend that sold you cars. The company hosted national rallies, and the CEO was there at all of them, partying with everyone.
Before long I also learned that the Fortwo wasn’t the only car to be built by Smart. There was the Roadster, the Crossblade and the Forfour. Then there were concepts like the Jeep-like Crosstown and the Formore SUV that was originally destined for the United States. I also learned that the Fortwo had a previous generation called the 450. A few of them leaked across the border thanks to companies like G&K Automotive, and the Canadians up north got them with diesel engines.
In the early days of Smart in the United States, the Smart Fortwo CDI and its diesel engine became a unicorn. Smart buyers were confused as to why we didn’t get the faster Brabus model or the more economical diesel. Instead, we got an engine that wasn’t fast and not incredibly economical. The Mitsubishi 3B21 in the U.S. Smart Fortwo was completely middle-of-the-road.
SmartUSA’s CEO at the time had personally informed the community that the engine was chosen because Smart and Mercedes-Banz believed it was the best balance between the quick-but-thirsty Brabus and the slow-but-economical diesel. It couldn’t afford to certify more than one engine for U.S. regulations. The engine — like the non-adjustable steering wheel — was a “one size fits all” choice.
For many Smart enthusiasts, including myself, getting our hands on a diesel was the dream. The Canadians bragged about getting 50-70 mpg depending on driving style in their 450s. In Europe, diesel-powered 451s were doing even better. Meanwhile, our gas-engines were averaging in the mid-30s with most drivers.
In the 14 years that I’ve been in love with Smart, I’ve maybe seen perhaps a dozen diesels make their way down from Canada to end up for sale, maybe fewer. And at all points in my life, I just couldn’t afford to buy one. That all changed on Saturday when a 2006 Smart Fortwo CDI popped up for sale for the first time since I’ve reached a comfortable place in my life.
I set up a meeting with the seller and immediately began freaking out about getting a car I’ve long thought that I’d never own.
My fiancée and I hopped into her Prius and drove three and a half hours deep into central Wisconsin. Lakes went from melted and somewhat warm to increasing levels of ice. Snow even appeared on the ground, but I didn’t care.
When I got behind the wheel for the test drive, it was like meeting a hero.
Here was a diesel Fortwo in the flesh with my hands wrapped around the wheel. Even better was the fact that it was in great condition. While I was buying the car from the third or fourth owner, the car came with all of its factory equipment, including a real cigarette lighter.
I don’t smoke; it’s just been a long time since I’ve actually seen a 12V-powered cigarette lighter.
It drove great, too. The seller was a wrencher, and he went through the drivetrain bulletproofing it. The car had its emissions system sorted, a couple of new glow plugs, a new starter, a new water pump, an upgraded oil pan, new seals, new cooling hoses, new alternator, new intercooler and a lot more.
The car was tight and drove great. The work done by the previous owner really showed. And as a cherry on top it was tuned for more power.
The 2006 Smart Fortwo CDI is powered by the 799cc Mercedes-Benz OM660 inline-three turbodiesel.
In stock form it makes a ravenous 40 horsepower and 74 pound-foot torque. If you think that results in a slow car, you’re right. Sure, it propels a car that weighs just 1,610 pounds, but it still takes 20 seconds to hit 60 mph. At least it goes on to an electronically-limited top speed of 84 mph. Not that you could go much faster.
These cars are geared so that 84 mph is already pretty close to redline in top gear. The seller estimates that mine is making 60 horses with its tune, but one day I’ll have to see how much power it’s actually making.
That engine is located just in front of the rear bumper. It drives the rear wheels through Smart’s old controversial single-clutch automated-manual gearbox. In these older 450s it’s a six-speed unit and at least to my butt dyno it does feel like it shifts faster. Oh, and check out this shift pattern.
The car starts in neutral. Move back for reverse or move left to put it in a forward gear. You can either move the shifter forward and back to select gears or hit the button on the side to let the computer do everything. Some European models don’t have that button, meaning that the driver has to move the lever. And of course, you don’t get a clutch pedal.
And in my ownership thus far? It’s getting 60 mpg. That’s not translating to incredible range as the tank is a diminutive six gallons, but it does mean that filling up is only about $24, even at local prices.
Honestly, it’s hard to believe that this car is actually mine. After a decade of dreaming, I almost got to the point where I thought I’d never get one.
Of course, the question that a lot of people already want to know is how did the car get to the United States from Canada? I’m the fourth, maybe fifth owner of this car. Two previous owners have told me that the original owner went through a bunch of hoops to import it, but they don’t know exactly what.
The 2006 Fortwo is eligible for importation thanks to the work of Registered Importers petitioning the NHTSA to allow an exemption to the infamous 25 year import rule. As I covered in my early days here, the NHTSA made a decision that the first-generation Fortwo can be imported to the United States as a couple of Registered Importers — namely G&K Automotive and J.T. Technologies — demonstrated that the cars can be modified to comply with FMVSS standards or already comply in noted areas.
Since this is a dream car for me, of course I’ve spent that decade looking into how to get one myself. Last year when I was in the middle of a JDM import adventure I reached out to various importers regarding Smart diesels and was told that it is possible, but involves so much paperwork and money that it’s not worth it for either party for such a cheap car. That perhaps explains why there are so few in the country.
I’m glad someone went through that headache with this car so I didn’t have to.
And I’ve already started personalizing the car by returning it closer to stock. I’ve removed the original owner’s custom headliner.
These cars are notorious for their weak air-conditioners and the original owner reportedly wanted to give it all of the help he could by tinting the windows and blocking out the roof.
Why did he block out the roof? Well, this is what it looks like from the factory!
Extremely airy, but it boils you like an egg on the hottest days. I prefer it that way.
The car came with three sets of wheels and a bunch of extras. One set will go on my recently revived 2012 Smart. I will also give this one a custom exhaust and change the fuel filters. But aside from that, I will enjoy it for the awesome little car that it is.
And don’t think that I’m done collecting Smarts. I still need to get a Crossblade, a Roadster, and a first-generation Forfour. I’m just happy to have a future wife who loves this as much as I do.
(Author’s note: Speaking of my future wife, we have a wedding date set! We’re set to get hitched next to a restored warplane in the EAA Oshkosh Museum this fall!)