Gareth Butterfield spends a week in the Smart Brabus Fortwo
THE Smart Brabus Fortwo has arrived. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Smart Fortwo. Even the older ones with stupid gearboxes and barely any luggage space oozed charm and originality and I’d respect anyone for treating themselves to one.
It’s been a while since I drove the latest version of the Fortwo and I remember marvelling at how much it had been improved since Mercedes, which peddles them, partnered with Renault, which lends it some bits and bobs out of its very similar Twingo.
But the Brabus version is the pinnacle of Smart ownership. Let me explain. If you want a really fast Mercedes, there’s plenty to choose from, go and see your nearest dealer. If you want a really, really fast Mercedes ask your dealer for something with an AMG badge – that means the bad boys at Benz have been unleashed on it. However, if the AMG treatment still doesn’t butter your parsnips then you need to go and see the lunatics over at Brabus, who take a really, really fast Mercedes and turn it up a few notches.
Having said that, the Fortwo Brabus is no fire-spitting, tyre-shredding monster. And there isn’t an AMG option somewhere in the middle either, because Brabus always puts its moniker on the Smarts. What we have here is a Fortwo with some lovely bits of decoration, wheels that look like garden rollers and the same tiny engine but with an extra 28bhp. So it might not be quite on a par with some of Brabus’s usual six-figure battleships, but it’s a pint-sized version which certainly looks as though it’s had as much attention paid to it.
I’VE got a series of small, straight-forward journeys to do in the Smart today, so it’s an ideal opportunity to get to know it. First things first, I love the way it looks. The latest Fortwo seems proportionately spot on, with the larger size being buried into similar lines, but with a more protruding snout and a bit more space at the rear. Inside, it’s a similar story. The original Fortwo was great at being small but, in a world where cars are growing all the time, this still feels tiny. Yet you have a decent enough boot, comfy seats and you never feel crammed in.
The bits Brabus has brought to the party inside include Brabus-branded gear and handbrake levers, a few other Brabus badges, and some other bits and bobs I had to hunt around for.
Outside it’s less subtle. Those big alloys marry up with a rorty dual single-exit exhaust and a tasteful bodykit. The overall package feels expensive and sporty.
My first impressions of driving the car aren’t the best. The gearbox, while being a vast improvement over the early automated manual systems, isn’t perfect in town. It’s not a twin-clutch “Twinamic” dual clutch system and shifts very quickly up and down, but there’s still a little bit of jerkiness that die-hard Smart fans put down to “character”.
There’s other problems too; the ride feels un-necessarily firm on the Brabus’s stiffened suspension setup and the stop-start system reacts so slowly it’s almost caught me out a few times. I return home feeling a little deflated, but keen to persevere.
TODAY I’m off to meet some family at a big reservoir near Leek with a slightly comical name. It’ll take me the best part of an hour to get there and there’s some fun, twisty rural roads on the way.
I flick the gearbox into manual, turn on the sport mode, tap away at the paddles and give it a moderately firm spanking. Suddenly, I love the Smart Fortwo Brabus. Performance is brisk, rather than bonkers, but its short wheelbase makes for a thoroughly entertaining and quite unique feel which is far more confidence inspiring than earlier versions. The steering responds well and the gearbox relishes working hard for a living.
Plough on into a corner and there’s the usual barrage of Fortwo understeer, but this time you can correct that by lifting off and letting the back end take the strain. The traction control will stop you doing anything too dim-witted, but even that feels like it’s been reined in, as if Brabus has set it up to allow the driver to be a little bit silly from time to time.
It is, make no mistake, an absolute hoot to drive. I love it.
THE wife wants a go in the Smart. She’s never liked the Fortwo but I think she’s intrigued after I came back raving about it yesterday. And, when she returned from driving it to and from work, she’s still lukewarm.
She agrees with me that it sounds and looks great, she likes the keen engine and the quicker-thinking gearbox but she feels it’s a bit fidgety and still feels ungainly.
I think she’s wrong, I think it’s got more secure road manners than ever before, but we both agree we won’t take it out on the evening’s shopping trip as we’ve got a habit of buying silly things when we go to Aldi and there’s now way we’d fit an ironing board or a garden hammock in the back.
BACK to the urban grind. Most of my driving today will be around town. This should be the Smart’s natural territory, but the firm ride and jumpy gearbox, bundled in with the idiotically slow stop-start system takes any joy out of it. After a few hours pootling around I’ve become a bit tired of it. What I really need is to take it back out on the open road for another spanking, but I have to work for a living or I’ll stop getting paid and then some men will come and take my house away.
THE Smart goes back tomorrow and I’ve come to realise that I’m not sure who would buy the Brabus Fortwo. Tick a few boxes at the showroom and you’ll be looking at the thin end of £20,000. They start at just over £16,000. City-dwellers living in penthouse apartments with tiny parking places might find that easier to stomach but it’s honestly not at its best in the urban sprawl. However, those living in the countryside might prefer to spend the cash on a “proper” hot hatch with a bit more space and probably a lot more pace.
That’s not to say it won’t sell though. The Fortwo has always been a big success and it always attracts a certain type of customer. The Brabus is the best of the breed, so anyone with a big enough penchant for the pint-sized runabout will no doubt be chomping at the bit for one.
Sadly though, it’s not me. I love its charm, the fun handling, the rorty exhaust note and the extra comfort and space the new version offers. I love the Brabus trinkets and the added power they’ve squeezed out of the engine, but I couldn’t live every day with the bumpy ride and the fidgety behaviour in town. And, more importantly, the wife would never forgive me if I bought one.