Uprated runabout that drips with urban charm… at a price
It doesn’t matter whether it is a Land Rover Defender or a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, I love cars that know what they’re here for and feel, at the very best, nothing more than apathy towards those which do not.
But mine is a minority view. Were it not, Smarts would have sold by the million over the years and so-called crossovers or soft-roaders not at all. The truth is that the small car revolution, which Mercedes promised when it launched its first Smart way back in 1998, never turned up. Across successive generations the car failed to sell in the numbers expected, and you sense that almost any company other than Mercedes would have cut its losses years ago. But having been seen to fail with its stewardship of Chrysler and the relaunch of Maybach as a brand in its own right, perhaps Mercedes was always looking for a way to relight the Smart fire.
Renault provided the spark, for it was also looking for a new Twingo, a car that once also commanded a reputation for being different and interesting. So a joint venture was drawn up to yield two Smarts – the two-door ForTwo and four-door ForFour – and one Twingo.
All Smarts come with three-cylinder engines, either a 1-litre normally aspirated Mercedes engine, or a 900cc turbo motor from Renault. They live out of sight beneath the boot and emit an engaging thrum in use.
Of the two I much preferred the ForTwo. The ForFour is expensive and, save for its commendably tight turning circle, doesn’t really offer anything dramatically different for those looking for a compact four-seater. Ideas you might have about it handling like a 911, thanks to its engine position, can be put straight back to bed: it’s not as disappointingly stodgy as a Twingo, but has been set up to ensure that there are no known geographical or climatic conditions that will make it oversteer.
The ForTwo is expensive too, very much so to my way of thinking, but at least that money is buying the most highly adapted four-wheeled city dweller that has probably ever existed, and I include the Renault Twizy because that only makes sense in decent weather.
It’s not just the abbreviated dimensions (just 2.7 metres long), but clever front suspension geometry that provides a turning circle so tight it makes a London taxi look like a tanker. The previous Smart was actually quite disappointing in this regard. As an owner of a 50-year-old Fiat 500, I thought I knew just how small a space a car could fit, but the Smart’s in a different league. Indeed you may never do a three-point turn again: if a road is wide enough to have a white line in its middle, it’s wide enough for the Smart to turn, usually with considerable space to spare. There’s only a little additional room in the boot but it’s fine for shopping. The car is wider, too, therefore less cosy for large occupants.
Out of town it’s better but not transformed. The manual transmission is an improvement on the old semi-automatic and there’s a double-clutch option for those who want it. Its handling won’t give the VW Up! anything to worry about, but the ride has been considerably improved.
Is it worth it? Put it this way: if all I ever wanted was to drive off-road, it would not even occur to me to have anything other than a Defender. And if all you want is a car to drive in town, the Smart ForTwo is the best there currently is. Those seeking a broader talent base should look elsewhere.
Smart ForTwo 1.0 Proxy
Engine: 1.0 litres, 3 cylinders
Power: [email protected]
Torque: 67lb [email protected]
Transmission: five-speed manual, real-wheel drive
Top speed: 94mph