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Car reviews - Smart - ForTwo - Cabrio

Our Opinion

We like
Choice, city ease, economy, funky individuality, fun thrash-ability
Room for improvement
Expensive, disgraceful ride, slow trannie

Smart logo29 Oct 2004

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

WHY is the Smart here? Not the exoskeletal Roadster version, the terrific two-seater drop-top that looks like the lovechild of a Lotus Elise and Tron.

I’m talking about the one-box two-seat three-cylinder ForTwo (nee City-Coupe and City-Coupe Cabriolet, before Smart’s silly name change policy), tepidly released in some Aussie capital cities since the latter half of last year.

Obviously it has a welcome home in the hubbub of uber-crowded Euro urban centres like Paris and London, but here, in the land of wide-open spaces?

Even in inner-CBD Sydney and Melbourne the ForTwo’s wee-ness is wasted, especially as there are none of the tax, parking, registration or ownership incentives some European Smart drivers enjoy.

No, there’s no logical explanation as to why this Smart is on sale in Australia. Especially when it's priced at a premium $19,900 for the coupe and $22,990 for the cabrio, and when, at launch, DaimlerChrysler charged a whopping $21,990 for the 2.5-metre coupe and $5K more for the Cabrio.

The Smart, though, is about choice, and giving Aussies the opportunity to drive something right-minded yet left-field (you sure stand out), ultra compact yet cosseting (it’s roomier for two than many larger cars), and even environmental yet enjoyable (it’s fun to row along yet uses only 4.7l/100km and is Euro4 emissions compatible).

Oddly, the ForTwo is also new yet old. And I don’t mean new as in new-to-us or "It’s been out since 1999 in-Europe" old (which it has, but that was the Series I model today’s 2002-launched Series II is up to 70 per cent new – mostly underneath – says Smart).

Behind the Smart’s space-age looks, composite materials usage and advanced electronic componentry lies a rear-engine rear-drive application big in Post War-era economy/city cars.

Until the 1959 BMC Mini 850 rewrote the rules, rear engines were all the small car rage with the likes of the ethereal Fiat 500 (as well as its awful 126 successor sold here in the late 1980s as the Polish-built FSM Niki) and 850, Renault’s wonderful 4CV, 8 and 10 ranges, the hapless Hillman Imp and – most famously – the original VW Beetle.

And it’s when you take these into consideration that you realise just how far the Smart has taken the rear-engine/drive concept, at least in the areas of life-preserving safety.

For one thing the ForTwo’s wheels-at-each-corner wheelbase, stabiliser bars, De Dion axle suspension, modern rubber (fat 145-aspect up front, phat 175s behind) and lexicon of computerised stability electrickery all conspire to keep things planted, not sideways, backwards or upside down. Even when cornered hard. Are you listening Messrs Beetle swing-axle rear suspension engineers up there in heaven?

It means that even on slippery surfaces, curves and corners can be taken with confidence the resulting total understeer attitude being an upshot of the Smart’s engineers’ desire for absolute safety first.

So while there’s a perverse pleasure in seeing if door-handles can scrape road surfaces in tight, twisty turns, in no way will keen drivers revel in the way this thing handles. There’s just no real feel transmitting through.

Disappointingly slow and inert steering also seems like a squandered opportunity in a motorised skateboard like this, but – again – it’s all in the name of safety.

But the really bad news is just how harsh the ForTwo’s ride is. In a city car it’s just not acceptable, with the anti-roll over devices destroying and suspension-travel suppleness the Smart may have originally had.

I live within 6km of my CBD’s GPO and many road bumps, ridges and unevenness were greeted with gritted teeth. Have the Germans forgotten where these cars are to be driven most?

Still, ride-aside, the Smart can be fun to punt around thanks to a tiger of a tiny turbocharged 698cc three-cylinder single-cam petrol engine.

Pumping out a plucky 45kW of power at 5250rpm and just 95Nm of torque between 2000 and 4000rpm, performance is nonetheless nothing short of eager, spirited and accessible.

Aided by the sub-750kg weight, the ForTwo’s 0.7-litre unit fills it with a fiery fervour, which is great for filling in those small gaps around town. The top speed is an electronically limited 130km/h. Even at around 10km/h shy of that the Smart is fairly stable unless there’s a particularly blustery head wind to whisk it about a bit.

Flooring the little three-pot is also rewarding because even when absolutely caned it always feels quite unburstable, while still offering fairly frugal fuel economy figures. Which is exactly what a city car ought to. Its brakes are also more than up to the task.

On the test car, it was mated to a six-speed clutchless sequential manual transmission. In motorcycle style the driver taps the lever towards the ‘+’ for up-shifts and ‘-’ for downshifts.

Despite feeling a little dopey and slow at first, the gearbox action becomes seamless after a while, and somehow seems to suit the un-sporty nature of the Smart’s anodyne handling.

Careful though, the resulting lag in first gear means instant takeoffs are never going to be as swift, so joining fast moving traffic lanes can be dicey. Plus the "hill-start" function is infuriatingly haphazard in stopping the car from rolling backwards.

An optional $590 ‘Sof-Touch’ ‘A’ mode is a jerky automatic mode that is only really ideal in heavy traffic when the driver couldn’t be bothered changing gears. A three-spoke steering wheel with rocker switches for gear changing is also available, for $1110.

The one-box design certainly turns heads and raises chuckles, particularly in a contrasting two-tone effect afforded by the metal body spine.

Even with changeable plastic panels that allows for individual expression as well as for keeping things fresh with future colour and trim themes, there’s a timelessness to the ForTwo that should keep it looking good for years.

Stepping inside the Smart’s sassy cabin, there’s an odd illusion that never really goes away no matter how much time you spend there.

Because of the vast windscreen, humongous doors, airy ambience and exceptional shoulder and legroom, it’s like you’re driving a regular-sized hatch like a Toyota Echo. In fact, for taller folk, it’s a more accommodating interior.

It’s only when you turn your head that you realise that the cabin ends where you expect rear passengers’ knees to be. It’s kinda weird and messes with your mind’s spatial perceptions, but there’s also a welcoming sense of deep denial about just how much imagined protective metal is just past your posterior.

And speaking of which, it’s a comfy one, thanks to slim yet supportive seats, a fine driving position that gives its occupant the benefit of elevation, a chunky little steering wheel and adequate ventilation.

On the other hand, the thick pillar just beside the driver does a sterling job blocking side vision, and there’s a dated, amateurish aspect to the dashboard’s low-fi design and scattered switchgear.

This is a shame because the fascia is peppered with funky details like the cloth trim and the (optional, at $280) pod clock and tachometer, that stare at you like an intoxicated Ja Ja Binks.

Equipment levels are decent for one as dinky as this, and include air-conditioning, power windows, keyless entry, a CD player, fog lights, alloy wheels and a leather steering wheel.

And Smart’s safety obsession manifests itself with dual front airbags, an electronic stability program featuring that dodgy hill-start action, anti-lock brakes with an electronic brake-force distribution device, seatbelt pre-tensioners and belt-force limiters.

Then there’s that cool exoskeletal "Tridion" safety cell that is supposed to resist deformation by absorbing as much of the impact energy as possible.

Surprisingly, side airbags and powered and heated mirrors are optional, together priced at $690, as is cruise control (with speed limiter, priced at $390) and a clock and tacho at $280. And the $1390 leather upholstery for a cabin as small as this just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The Cabriolet’s electric roof slides like a giant sunroof back to the top of the rear window. That too collapses and, along with the removable (and storable) side window bars, makes for a fuller, if somewhat fiddly, open car. It adds to the fun though.

But the reduced luggage capacity that results means the ForTwo is a very limited load carrier. Count on only soft baggage for bigger trips.

A trip is what best describes this shortest of all passenger cars sold in Australia.

As more Smart variants arrive – such as the Mitsubishi Colt-based ForFour later this year – the unique ForTwo’s place in the sun will become clearer: it’s really here only to help establish DaimlerChrysler’s economy car brand.

Sure, there are more sensible and far-cheaper light cars that are virtually as city friendly as the Smart, but you have to find another $167,000 before dialling Stuttgart 911 for the only other rear-engine contender.

And only the funky ForTwo will turn heads as effortlessly as some of its diabolical rear-engined predecessors of yesteryear spun their tails.

Aussie motorists were once painfully starved of European baby cars. Now we have plenty the choice.

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