First there was small…then there was smart
Believing the smart car to be the modern day iteration of the post-war ‘bubble-car’, Iain Robertson has been an ardent fan of the German brand since it grew from the smart watch (swatch) company (always in lower case, naturally).
Swiss-domiciled Nicky Hayek was the man behind the entire smart concept. He was also the man who developed the swatch, which was remarkably inexpensive, became immensely popular and remains hugely collectible today. Although developed under the handle of ‘swatchmobile’, the initial automotive concept in the late-1980s was intended to provide seats for two, in a stylish form, powered by a hybrid drive-train.
The concept was brilliant but, producing a wholly new motorcar was an expense someway above the funding capabilities of swatch and Hayek was forced into seeking a partner. Volkswagen was the first in 1991. Yet, two years later, as the VW Group was already developing its own ultra-frugal tiddler, the swatchmobile ran the risk of being swamped by the car giant’s alternative project. Hayek was forced to seek another partner.
In early-1994, the deal was struck with Mercedes-Benz and the MCC (Micro Car Company AG) was established, at a cost of Swiss Francs 50m, 49% borne by swatch and 51% by Merc. With a heavy influence on the design of the finished products, which remained fairly true to Hayek’s original concept, Merc provided a steady hand on the tiller. The name of the product, while convenient, is actually an acronym for ‘Swatch Mercedes Art’.
In an industry that is not exactly renowned for innovative solutions (most having already been explored), the resultant smart car broke significant new ground on the manufacturing front, featuring a passenger safety cell, known as Tridion, onto which were tacked an array of polycarbonate (advanced plastic) body panels. Intriguingly, by hiving off much of the development costs to the various component suppliers, MCC was able reduce the overall manufacturing costs substantially, which makes you wonder why other carmakers do not follow suit. However, not all was well. Scared somewhat by the inherent instability of the car’s handling (rear-engined and tall construction), having endured the much-publicised rollover issues with its innovative A-Class model, a quick trip back to the drawing-board proved essential, even though it delayed the launch exercise.
By October 1998, the smart was introduced to several markets and early, left-hand-drive private imports were made to the UK. However, Hayek was reported as being unhappy, as his original intention of the smart to be hybrid-powered was not forthcoming. As Merc was on an acquisition spree, soon to partner Chrysler Corporation, it simply bought out Hayek and smart become part of the larger group of car companies. It was another two years before the brand would be sold officially in the UK.
The latest version of the fortwo ‘coupe’ has adopted a wholly fresh and markedly more organic outline, over the original’s sharper styling. Naturally, its appearance is subjective and, while I am sure its appeal will grow, it is actually not as pretty as the Mark One version. In many ways, I think that it has lost a lot of its ingenious features, especially with its interior detailing, which was a lot funkier in the first generation models.
Fortunately, the bits that matter remain unsullied and vastly improved. While the original ‘hammock-style’ seats were fairly innovative (the last cars to feature similar seating were the Citroen 2CV and Renault 4), the latest items are (in the prime trim of the test car) hide covered but considerably more supportive and comfortable, which will reduce the pained expressions on smart drivers’ faces after making longer expeditions. Although updated versions of the previous models gained a tidier finish to the dashboard moulding, the new one is bigger and even better. Sadly, the cheeky little instrument pods have been replaced by a single multi-purpose dial and a combined clock/rev-counter on the right-hand end of the dash.
In the centre is a seven-inch touch screen, which controls most of the car’s functions (sat-nav, heating and ventilation, stereo etc) and a Bluetooth linking mechanism to smartphones, unsurprisingly. Conventional steering column-stalks operate lights, indicators and wipers, while large buttons on the steering wheel cross-spokes enable additional operations, such as cruise control and remote access to the information screen ahead of the driver.
Unlike the first smart, a conventional 5-speed manual transmission is now the default option, in stark contrast to the sequential, automated-manual original. Personally, I preferred the original device. It was unconventional. It provided a Saab-like place for the ignition key. Gearchanges could be ’jerky’, if not handled properly. It did cause a few issues for drivers unfamiliar with two-pedal automated gearboxes. Yet, while it could be demanding, it was as quirky as the smart needed to be. A less ‘problematic’, twin-clutch device is available as an option from this summer and would be my choice for this most ideal of city cars.
Naturally, space for two people is fine, beneath a polycarbonate glazed roof, complete with manual sun-screen, but that is it. The space behind the front seats is packed with a below-floor engine, a vestigial luggage cover and, amazingly, 260-litres of space (up to 350-litres, if you pile it to the ceiling). There is a neat little drawer for your iPod/iPad in the left side of the centre console, from which the power leads also emanate (and fall out all too readily), but none of the natty little spring-out cup-holders of the old smart. The glove box is good for…well, gloves.
The premium package fitted to the test car (+£795) includes height adjustability to the heated driver’s seat and steering wheel, as well as electric operation/heated door mirrors, rear parking sensors and the smart media-system (the touch-screen, audio streaming, sat-nav and various interfaces). Additional equipment also includes forward collision warning (+£195), DAB radio (+£195) and the silver paint finish (+£295), all of which bump up the invoice price to a sizable £13,300. When you consider that, even laden with extras, a VW Up!, Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo offer a decent combination of funkiness, low operating costs and dependable trade-in values, plus two extra seats, the smart proposition starts to look mighty expensive.
Whereas the former smarts offered a choice of turbocharged triples (from 700cc up), the most recent engine is now sans-turbo but displaces 999cc (one litre, as near as dammit). The power output is about the same at 71bhp but it is lacking a bit in the torque department at just 67lbs ft and the engine needs to be revved to take advantage of it. Mind you, once up-and-running, the smart makes good use of its limited power. The engine is certainly willing enough.
In fact, it translates into a modest 0-60mph time of just 14.1 seconds, while its top speed is restricted to 94mph, which I accept is a notional figure in our market. Pottering around town, which is supposed to be the smart’s natural environment, sees very disappointing fuel returns on the in-car computer readout. Nowhere near to its Official Urban figure of 57.7mpg, fortunately the numbers crept upwards, when using the car for longer trips, although the 48.9mpg that I attained still falls 20mpg short of the Official Combined figure. Fortunately, a 93g/km CO2 rating means zero VED and a lowly 3E insurance group also keeps other overheads within affordable bounds.
Perfectly set-up for roister-doistering around town, one of the smart’s most astonishing features is its incredibly tight turning circle of just 22feet 9inches, which is tighter than a London Black Cab. Should you apply full lock to turn the car around in a narrow street, the sensation of defying logic (mainly because there is unlikely to be a need to reverse at all) not only puts a huge smile on your face but also becomes a memorable achievement.
The power steering offers variable ratio and effort, which can make its responses feel a little ‘strange’ at times but familiarisation builds rapidly and zipping through near impossible gaps, or making minute direction changes, becomes second nature. The latest smart’s handling is a vast improvement on the first generation, although sudden road surface bumps can feel initially unsettling, even though the car’s overall stability is very good. Its open road handling and manoeuvrability is also much-improved and it does feel significantly more driveable than before.
Conclusion: As the consummate city car, the smart fortwo still takes some beating. However, its detailing is not reflected in its high invoice price. It is well built and durable, while it is worth remembering that it is probably one of the safest small cars ever produced. It is roomier than before but still a strict two-seater, which means that, if you want extra carrying capacity, the forfour alternative should be on your shortlist (also available as the Renault Twingo). If funkiness is your intention, the latest smart still delivers to expectations.