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New models - Smart - city-coupe pulse

First drive: Smart just enough for the city

Attracting a crowd: But a crowd can't fit in the new Smart mini car.

Mercedes-Benz's two-seater mini car is now on sale in Australia

Smart logo24 Jun 2003

SMART has landed in Australia six years after its international debut and with 400,000 sales to date (122,000 last year alone) should not be dismissed as a quirky irrelevance.

Rolling into showrooms now are the second generation Smart models complete with newly minted brand identity and corporate name.

Gone is the clumsy Micro Compact Car nomenclature - just call it Smart now - and etch "open your mind" into your psyche as its positioning statement.

The 2.5m long, two-seater, rear-engined, three-pot, turbocharged, plastic panelled city slicker is available only from a brace of Mercedes-Benz owned dealers (predictably enough in Melbourne and Sydney) with an outlet in Brisbane due next year.

Sold through smartCentres, the city-coupe and cabriolet versions inhabit a corner of the main showroom and, like BMW's Mini, are accompanied by a lengthy list of options and accessories.

Mercedes-Benz says the Smarts are premium market cars not to be confused with other three-pot screamers such as the Daihatsu Charade and Daewoo Matiz.

Not that this is likely, given the tall-poppy, abruptly cropped styling, interchangeable plastic body panels ($2500 and an hour in the workshop replaces all coloured panels around the TRIDION safety cell) and high-spec feature list. The deformable plastic panels are 100 per cent recyclable.

Unusually, the passenger seat can be set noticeably further back than the driver's, aiding visibility at intersections as well as moving the passenger further from the frontal accident.

Equipped with small crumple zones, Smart executives concede questions on safety are among the first offered by potential customers.

The TRIDION safety cell, a sandwich construction allowing a flat floor and the mechanicals to be mounted below the cabin, and the Smart's inherently tiny body should help it survive or avoid an impact in the first place.

The standard $21,900 city-coupe tips the scales at 730kg, and the EU4-compliant 698cc motor produces 45kW at 5250 rpm and 95Nm of torque between 2000rpm and 4000rpm.

It sips less than six litres/100km around town. No highway figures are quoted, just a light-hearted reference to long journeys.

A combined fuel consumption figure of 4.7L/100km of PULP and a 38-litre tank (including 5 litres in reserve) should provide sufficient range for most urban fashion victims.

Suspension is by wishbone and strut at the front and a DeDion tube, wishbone-mounted coils, and anti-roll bar at the rear.

Standard kit includes dual airbags, anti-lock brakes and Mercedes' ESP Traction, Stability, Acceleration Skid Control and Hill Start Assist as well as Electronic Brake Force Distribution, front fog lamps, remote central locking and 15-inch alloy wheels.

The interior is air-conditioned, boasts power windows (but manually adjusted mirrors), CD stereo and a clutchless sequential six-speed manual gearbox.

An automatic transmission selection and shifting function is an optional extra. All coupe models feature a full-length fixed glass sunroof. A tiny rear wiper keeps the small back screen clean.

Tight city streets pose no threat to the 1515mm wide Smart with a tiny 8.7m turning circle. At 1549mm high it provides generous headroom.

The $26,990 Smart cabrio adds a power roof that slides back to behind the B pillar and then can be locked down into place below the window line. The roof rails across the wide doors can be unclipped and locked into a special storage compartment in the inside of the fold-down boot lid.

While the Smart comes with plenty of gear, it does not have a spare wheel, relying on a small compressor to reinflate tyres, and although it may look child-like, is not child friendly, failing to provide any child seat anchorages at all. It also does not have an opening bonnet, with limited engine access available under the parcel shelf that serves as a luggage bay behind the seats.

All Smarts come from a factory in Hambach, France, (although production in Brazil is underway too) and in Australia are offered with a three-year, unlimited km warranty as well as three-year roadside assistance.

Mercedes-Benz hopes to sell 300 this year and as many as 2000 Smart brand vehicles a year once the four-door four-seater "forfour" model appears late next year.

In the interim, the sexy, sporty Smart roadster appears in November priced around $40,000 and complete with low slung body, tuned 60kW engine and aimed to snare MX-5 and Lotus Elise lovers who want the looks if not the pace and handling, but at half the Hethel price.

PRICING:
Smart city-coupe pulse $21,990
Smart city-cabriolet pulse $26,990

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THIS is not serious transport for the faint of heart. But it is more than a motorised bath chair for two.

Smart brings the cynical poverty pack Charade and Matiz into the spotlight by offering heaps of desirable equipment for very little more money (even if you could access as options the features Smart has as standard, which by and large you cannot).

You can't fault Benz on the money: $21,900 for a two-seater city car seems absurd compared to a driveaway deal on a Hyundai Elantra, but Smart buyers are not in the market for mass-produced South Korean goods.

According to Mercedes, Smart buyers own S-class sedans and SL coupes and, it would seem, have a quirky side we never knew previously existed. The buyer age range spans 18 to 80 years.

Impatient buyers who opted for grey imports will be smarting, having laid out $45,000 or more to be first with the latest fashion accessory.

Smart certainly won't be selling cars to major celebrities hoping to scoot around town unnoticed, but expect minor celebrities trying to rev up their image, to climb aboard in droves.

This becomes immediately apparent as we whiz through central Sydney during lunchtime. Gawpers are everywhere, on the sidewalks, in cafes, in cars next to us, as well as leaning on shovels or playing touch footie in the quiet backstreets. Most reactions are approving (shovel-leaners aside).

Many have never seen a Smart before and wonder at its lairy colour scheme or just its pocket-sized dimensions.

Accommodation inside is superb with comfy seats, elevated driving position and good adjustment for the seat reach.

What's missing is any steering column adjustment or height adjustment of the driver's seat, which is fixed higher than the passenger's.

The controls are showered across the budget-quality (by Benz standards) plastic dash, which though chaotic, is trendily trimmed in material that matches the seats.

The manual gearbox has actuators and electronics to do the physical gear shifting so it's not as fast as a true auto or sequential mode auto

A huge parcel shelf up front would be an ideal place to allow oddments to roam free before zooming out the open side windows as you take a corner.

The ignition lock is set between the seats, Saab-like and the gear shifter pokes out of the floor near the driver's left knee.

The three-pot engine opens up easily and likes to rev. There's a Smart-sized turbo lag but the engine is bright and breezy and shoots the lightweight car away from rest with some urge.

In sequential manual mode you knock the shifter forward to change up and if you leave your foot flat the change is somewhat jerky.

The change is slicker if you lift off before changing and pretend to declutch before reapplying the throttle.

The manual gearbox has actuators and electronics to do the physical gear shifting so it's not as fast as a true auto or sequential mode auto.

The engine is perky and audible when hauling but that's no slight.

It sounds fun, like a fighter plane or Formula racing car when driven hard, and it can surprise some traffic light racers with its off-the-line zest.

A digital readout on the dash prompts up or down changes as well as recording which of the six gears is in use. Acceleration around town in upper gears is poor, but dropping back to second is fun and gets the turbo working again.

The brakes take some getting used to, being less progressive than you might like for smooth city driving.

Steering is light and effortless but not woolly or feel-free. The suspension though could probably be retuned for the bashing the little Smart endures on the roughshod riverbeds Sydney laughingly calls roads.

There's a fair degree of banging and crashing although the bump stops don't get a working over.

You'd have to hope the TRIDION cell is well welded and the plastic panels screwed in tightly for the Smart to stand up to sustained punishment. Though if it can handle Belgian cobbles? That said, a number of rattles were present in the test car and predictably the cabrio suffers from far greater scuttle shake than the city-coupe.

The insulation covering the steel engine cover does a good job although the combination of summer heat and a prolonged crawl through the traffic could melt your ice cream on the journey home.

Despite its tiny size, the Smart feels like a bigger car when driving. It does not feel flimsy or fragile and it is only when you look in the rear view mirrors and wonder why the following traffic seems so close, that you remember there are only a handful of inches of car behind your head. It's a sobering thought.

The Smart is a fun car for A to B motoring for inner city high-fliers, or perhaps retirees marooned in retirement villages.

It is impractical in many ways, but perhaps a safer (if pricier) option to a scooter. With congestion set to increase and parking ever scarcer, the car could be a smart alternative.

GoAuto can help you buy a new city-coupe pulse

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