Car reviews - Smart - ForFour - range
Interior space, unique styling, distinctive driving experience, punchy performance, sharp handling, light weight, fuel consumption, standard safety features, manual transmission, interior storage and practicality, clever design
Room for improvement
Seating for just four, lack of suspension travel, overly firm ride quality, long distance comfort, disconnected electric power steering feel, price
29 Oct 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
FOR starters, it’s best to forget what you know about the Smart cabriolet and coupe ForTwo models.
For one thing, the new ForFour is front-wheel, not rear-wheel, drive and its engine is mounted transversely at the front of the vehicle – not slightly ahead of the rear axle.
Secondly, its proportions are more akin to what we normally expect of a light car – roughly the same size as Volkswagen Polo for instance, or a Mini Cooper.
Thirdly, the engine itself is a conventional four-cylinder, of 1.3 or 1.5 litres, and it drives through a regular five-speed manual or an automated, sequential-control manual.
Just as importantly, this car, which was jointly developed by DaimlerChrysler and Mitsubishi, offers seating space for more than just two people.
It doesn’t, like some small cars, even pretend to be a five-seater, but the four people it is capable of carrying won’t feel short-changed in terms of space.
With the fore-aft adjustable back seat on its rearmost setting, the legroom and foot room border on astonishing for such a small car.
It’s all about packaging, the ForFour, although comparing its dimensions with other European light cars like the Polo, it’s a bit of a surprise to discover how close it is.
The ForFour is, in fact, slightly bigger than the mini VW in all dimensions except overall length – which doesn’t really surprise given the dramatically chopped-off front and rear-ends.
So, whether you find the Smart’s appearance appalling or appealing, what you are really getting is a pretty tried and tested packaging formula. Not quite as smart as the weirdo two-seaters, even if there is a distinct family resemblance with the multi-coloured external panels and the profusion of instrument-containing pods on the dash.
To drive, the ForFour does have a distinctive character.
Both 1.3 and 1.5-litre engines are sweet revving, more than happy to power through to the redline. The less than one-tonne weight helps here, although the engines are pretty powerful for their capacity – slightly more so in fact than versions used in the Mitsubishi Colt. The 80kW 1.5-litre feels marginally more punchy than the 70kW 1.3.
The claim is that the ForFour 1.5-litre will reach 100km/h in 9.8 seconds, which is not hanging around. Importantly, the 1.3-litre claims an average fuel consumption of 5.8 litres/100km, while the 1.5 is almost as good with 6.1 litres/100km.
But if the engines are willing, the suspension is less so. DaimlerChrysler developed the MacPherson strut front suspension, but the general feeling is that the little car could do with a lot more suspension travel. A lot more.
It will bump and thump annoyingly, on surfaces where you don’t necessarily expect it, and delivers a sharpish ride that could prove hard to take on long journeys. But the Smart isn’t a car for long journeys.
It is quite responsive and stable in its handling though, remaining relatively composed when pushed. The electric power steering isn’t the best we’ve tried, showing distinct evidence of the disconnected feel noticeable in other, similarly equipped cars.
Smooth the ride out, however, and the combination of good handling and zippy engines would make an appealing combination.
We didn’t get to drive the five-speed automated transmission, but the regular manual gearbox swaps ratios cleanly and swiftly enough.
Although the Mercedes-Benz presence is downplayed in the ForFour, safety standards are very high. A big point of difference with other light cars is the inclusion of electronic stability control and ABS as standard equipment. Twin front airbags and front-passenger side airbags are also part of the deal.
Consistent with its thoughtful, clever design, the ForFour offers an abundance of storage spaces in the doors, the dash and the centre console area. The seats prove comfortable enough for commuting work, although height-adjustment is optional.
The back seat is a 60-40 split-fold (strange for a two-seater) and slides forward or backward to increase passenger or boot space, depending on your needs. An optional "lounge" seating arrangement enables the front seats to be folded flat to give what the company calls a "living room feel."
Although both local ForFour models are based on the "Pulse" models available on other markets, the 1.5-litre version picks up a couple of extra goodies including a leather-rimmed steering wheel with multi-function controls, a trip computer and four-speaker radio-CD system (two speakers in the 1.3).
Air-conditioning, power front windows and alloy wheels are standard on both models.
It’s hard to see any problems in selling the 300 cars expected for 2005. The ForFour is undoubtedly a lot less radical than the ForTwo coupe and cabriolet, and there have already been plenty of small-car precedents in the mid-$20,000 bracket, so sticker shock shouldn’t be a problem.
Not quite the attitude of a Mini Cooper, but we can see where the company is coming from when it says it expects the ForFour to take sales from the little BMW-designed three-door. As well as being cute, it’s also a lot more practical.
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