Gareth Butterfield gets to grips with Smart’s new Fortwo, to see if it retains its original charm
I CAN remember back to the days when the public first set eyes on a Smart. It was a remarkably odd-looking car at a time when odd-looking cars really weren’t a thing and you could park it nose-first in a parking bay.
It was a bit revolutionary at the time, and the whole idea was developed by a guy who ran a company that made colourful watches.
I can also remember when I first drove a City-Coupe, the fore-runner for what has now blossomed into the Fortwo. I thought it was a bit twitchy in the corners, jerky when it changed gear, but quirky and outlandish in a way I’d not seen a car being before.
There was nothing retro or over-designed about it, it just had its own style. That wasn’t to everyone’s cup of tea, but that didn’t matter. Slowly but surely, the Smart brand became a huge success.
You can’t park it nose-first into a parking bay any more and it no longer jerks you back and forth every time it changes gear, but it still retains much of the charm that gave is such a strong following in the first place.
The Swatch side of the design evolution vanished long ago and Smart has been solely Mercedes’ baby for a long time. And over the years the German luxury brand has resisted the temptation to merge the two icons, which has always seemed a sensible idea.
Not that that’s a bad thing of course. Opting not to buy a small car because it reminds you a little bit of a Mercedes would be like not buying a town house because it looks a bit like Buckingham Palace if you squint.
Its design is a faithful and careful advancement of the way it all began. It’s stylish without being understated, but quirky without being embarrassing. And it can’t have been an easy thing to pull off, either. The new Smart had to fit on broadly the same footprint, yet it had to incorporate better pedestrian protection, so the upright bonnet had to go. The designers have hit the sweet spot between evolving the looks and taking things a step too far.
And inside a Smart enthusiast will feel instantly at home. It’s got the “how can it be so spacious” thing going on that every two-seater Smart has ever had.
But it’s also got a more upmarket feel. There’s textured fabrics which add a premium air to the cabin, and top-spec models get a new seven-inch floating infotainment screen.
You can also have heated seats, there’s handy storage cubbies, a panoramic roof and cruise control are all available as well, depending on whether you go for Passion, Prime or Proxy trim levels.
The new chassis, which is actually shared with the Renault Twingo, brings with it cleverer suspension and parts of the front axle have been borrowed from its big cousin, the Mercedes C-Class. All this helps the ride no end.
One quirk you’d either love or hate with the old Smart – usually hate – was the old robotised manual gearbox. It’s thankfully been ditched and replaced by a five-speed manual or an optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
Weirdly, the auto still retains some of the original box’s lumpy charm, but without the stupidity and clumsiness than went with it. If you can afford it, go for the auto.
Because it’s still rear engined, and because of all the time they’ve spent getting the front end right, the Smart has the tightest turning circle in the business. It’s easy to overlook just how useful this is even if, like me, you’ll spend most of the time showing it off to your mates, or passers-by.
The engines, incidentally, are all new and even cheaper to run, especially the more frugal 70bhp 1.0-litre naturally aspirated unit.
The more powerful 89bhp 900cc turbo engine is around £700 more to buy but is by far the better choice, because it seems to suit the car’s fun and lively handling so much better.
Ownership of a new Fortwo starts at a shade over £11,000 so, yes, there are cheaper city cars available but buying a Smart is buying an icon.
The original didn’t soar in popularity because it was cheap, it was successful because it was cool. Thankfully, the new one is cool too. And that’s something you can’t really put a price on.