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Car reviews - Smart - ForTwo - Turbo cabriolet

Our Opinion

We like
Zippy performance, parking and traffic-manoeuvring advantages, economy, rorty engine note, massive improvements over predecessor
Room for improvement
Price, crashy ride, uncommunicative steering, slow and jerky gearchanges, no rear visibility with roof fully retracted, blind spots

17 Apr 2008

THE Smart ForTwo has been zipping through Australia’s traffic congestions for five years now, yet it is still attracting attention.

People either point and smile or stare in awe and curiosity at the micro machine’s dimensions. Someone even joked whether it needed to be wound up each morning.

It is obvious that this alternative choice in personal mobility still divides onlookers: they either understand and appreciate its compactness, or are simply left wondering why.

Whatever your view, one must acknowledge that there simply isn’t anything else like it on the road.

By comparison, other light cars such as the Toyota Yaris, Mazda2, Nissan Micra and Suzuki Swift seem to appear almost twice as big.

Despite these very accomplished cars offering more space, versatility and a digestible pricetag, they are far too mainstream and just don’t have the quirky personality or obvious size advantages of the ForTwo.

No, that’s not a misprint the Smart’s pint-sized proportions definitely have their advantages. Be it comfortably parking into a tight spot otherwise left for motorcycles, or squeezing through gridlocked traffic to get to the front of the pack, the ForTwo will succeed where others fail. Reverse parking? Easy.

Though its size is only marginally bigger and its subtle facelift will test even trainspotters, the new second-generation ForTwo is much improved over its predecessor – but it is certainly not perfect.

Without the benefit of seat height adjustment, even drivers of average height will have trouble seeing past the rear-view mirror and visibility is further hampered by the thick B-pillars, while the electrically-folding fabric roof – though conveniently functional at any speed – eliminates rear visibility when fully folded.

The taut suspension makes for a harsh ride that, combined with the short wheelbase, could keep your chiropractor busy, the wooden and long-travel brake pedal fails to inspire confidence and the car steers like a dodgem car sandwiched between two bullies when under load.

Regardless of engine speed, the automated manual transmission is so slow and jerky you find yourself repeatedly shouting obscenities. Looking for a little bit of smoothness, we tried the optional ($750) ‘Softouch’ auto button, but that robbed us of the revvy fun.

We are also disappointed by the fact that the fixed steering wheel has neither tilt nor reach adjustment, which is unacceptable for a car at this price. And where’s the all-important auxiliary input for the iPod?

Let’s face it, at $24,990 (ForTwo Turbo Cabriolet), there are a lot of good small cars to choose from that are much better-equipped. But it’s not all bad news.

We revelled in the zippy performance from an eager and flexible 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine (producing 62kW at 5250rpm and 120Nm at 3250rpm), which deals comfortably with only 800kg of weight, and the rorty rear engine note delights with the ForTwo motor located right behind the occupants.

And, of course, there is the enviable fuel consumption average of 5.0L/100km, as well as the aforementioned traffic and parking advantages.

Looking at the ForTwo’s wheel-at-each-corner stance, flared guards and wider rear tyres (175/55 R15 front and 195/50 R15 rear), we were reminded that there’s something uniquely cool about the Smart’s rear-engine, rear-wheel drive configuration.

Comparatively, the new model has grown in all directions, but is still a midget. It is 195mm longer (at 2695mm), 43mm wider (1559mm) and has a 55mm-longer wheelbase (1867mm), but height has dropped by 5mm to 1542mm.

To put things into proportion, a Toyota Yaris is 1055mm longer, 136mm wider, 12mm lower and has a gigantic 765mm-longer wheelbase.

It is a shame, then, that Australia – unlike some parts of Europe – does not offer any discounts on parking, tax or registration for mini-cars.

Despite apparently looking identical to the old model, a side-by-side comparison reveals that is not the case and the new ForTwo reinforces the Mercedes/Smart family resemblance even better than before.

Just as the old model mimicked the parent company’s double-oval headlight theme of the time, the new ForTwo now adopts the aggressive sculpted headlight styling of current Benzes.

The interior, however, is a completely different story. Old and quirky Ikea-esque styling touches like the CD changer, two-spoke steering wheel, driver-angled centre-console and tasteless ’90s colour styling have been replaced with a mature, more spacious, quality-feeling interior.

A new horizontal-design dashboard, a heated rear window for improved rear visibility, a leather-trimmed three-spoke steering wheel, redesigned seats, a lockable glovebox that can store a bottle of wine, more storage compartments (up from 150 litres to 220), simpler audio and climate-control functions and more contemporary colours and fabrics round up the major changes.

Some signature items remain, however. The two swivelling dash-mounted pod gauges (tacho and clock) are still in service, and you can still remove the tops of the door frames and store them in the tailgate for a more open-top feeling.

With its super-small size and predominant use of fully recyclable plastic body panels, it is reasonable to ask about safety in a world of bullbars and 4WDs, but all Smart cars must pass the same crash test procedures as the Mercedes S-class and the ForTwo scored a commendable four-star result in Euro NCAP crash testing.

Contributing to the result is the ForTwo’s trademark “Tridion” safety cell, a structure that cocoons the car’s occupants by resisting deformation and absorbing a huge amount of impact energy. For the new model, the cell has been further reinforced with high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels in crucial areas.

Other standard safety features include dual front and side head/thorax airbags (located in the side of the seat backrests for head and upper body coverage), non-switchable electronic stability control (featuring an iffy hill-holder function), anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, seatbelt pre-tensioners and belt-force limiters.

Putting the Smart through its paces, we just could not upset its stability. Even when cornering hard, the combination of chubby rubber, firm suspension, wheel-at-each-corner stabilty and ESC kept the ForTwo permanently planted and inspired confidence, even on slippery surfaces.

Unfortunately, however, keen drivers will be disappointed in the way the ForTwo rides and handles. The (optional) electric steering system spoils the fun and transmits no feedback - especially under load, when it becomes dead-heavy.

But, as an old and wise person would say, life is all about balance. Ying and yang, sweet and sour, work and play, hot and cold, good and bad. And that’s how we felt about the Smart ForTwo Turbo Cabriolet. Where there was something to love about it, there was something to complain about, and vice-versa.

There were fun moments where we laughed triumphantly and patted the dash like an obedient canine companion, yet there were sour times when it left us cold.

But, like those who observe it, the ForTwo cabrio never left us feeling indifferent.

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