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Quo vadis smart?


Making no bones about his personal distrust of the Chinese carmakers, Iain Robertson was more than mildly gobsmacked when it was announced that Mercedes-Benz was ‘50%-offloading’ its smart car company to the Geely Corporation and, while logic might suggest it is not a bad commercial idea, he wonders about the innovative loss.

Although the smart car project has been fairly good at self-pubicity, which means that it is almost as well-renowned as Mini is to BMW, it has not enjoyed the blanket retail approval that would have placed an example on every street corner. In fact, it has been a most expensive gesture along lines that led Volkswagen to sell its interest in the car brand to Daimler-Benz (actually, Daimler-Chrysler at the time), which continued to fund it in conjunction latterly with Renault for its Twingo/forfour joint venture based at the Born factory that once belonged to Volvo.



Peter Hayek was the inventor of smart watches. The ultra-reliable, ultra-cheap and ultimately disposable timepieces proved to be immensely and classlessly successful. However, he was a man with a dream; he wanted to develop his own car brand and, realising that it would take considerably larger funding than he could afford to throw at it, a deal was struck with Volkswagen. Yet, before the first examples rolled off the production lines in southern Germany, VW was searching elsewhere for a new owner. Packed with innovative features, the exoskeleton car, with pre-coloured plastic panels attached, provided minimalist transport (for two people, to begin with) featuring novelties galore.

It was never the most dynamically gifted of machines, its city car dimensions insisted on near unfeasible body height in relation to wheelbase length and suspension movement. Merc was already experiencing problems with its unstable A-Class newcomer and an over-abundance of electronic nannying programs were soon translated across both brands to make them less lethal to drive. While Hayek disappeared with his pockets stuffed with cash, Merc continued to fund smart semi-fecklessly. The irony was that I loved the car, because, at six feet six inches tall, I could get comfortable in its fearlessly safe cabin and buzzing around town was a surprisingly engaging and often amusing exercise.



The subsequent roadster and forfour models proposed a viable future for the brand and, while the former was immense fun to drive, linked with Mitsubishi, the forfour resulted in a new Colt hatchback that was about as effective as a box of frogs. Merc simply could not get the balance right and was losing interest rapidly. The Mark Two versions of fortwo and forfour (now both rear-engined, with the latter in strange conjunction with Renault) succeeded at refining the overall package but they were still oddballs capable of creating strong retail resistance, even though  owners adored them forgivingly. A run of AMG and Brabus conversions factored in enhanced performance at hefty  £30k+ price tags, making them even less viable as volume models. However, the electric smart seemed to gather more interest, even with a mere 80mls range and a relatively low price tag.



It is the latter developments that have tickled Geely’s fascination. Although the Chinese car giant’s relationship with Volvo has been a little fraught at times, at least it has not been afraid to invest and both LEVC (London Taxi) and Lotus Cars have been recent beneficiaries. While the details of an all-new smart car are still thin on the ground, it is more conventionally shaped, with five-door access and the promise of 200mls EV range, although it is said to lack the plastic-fantastic novelties that have been inherent to smart and its character.

Conclusion:         The all-new smart car, to be called #1 by its joint partners, is much more spacious than ever and is set for launch early this summer, at prices said to commence at around £26,000.