This Smart has been around European cities since 1998 but such is the vehicle’s visual impact that it seems much longer than that.
The car is already on sale in Australia and Canada, has arrived in New Zealand, but won’t be available in the United States until 2006.
Whatever you think about the Smart, you can’t deny that its cute looks are appealing.
Making a small car look good is a designer’s nightmare yet the Swatch people in Switzerland came up with a truly excellent body shape with ideal proportions.
Convincing the world that the car had a future was less easy.
Volkswagen rejected the project so Swatch approached Daimler in Germany and received the green light. The Mercedes connection did no harm at all to the Smart image.
Smart makes so much sense on our crowded roads. It measures a mere 2500mm – just a whisker over eight feet, or two feet less than the original Mini and shorter than the classic Fiat 500.
At 1510mm, the Smart is not especially narrow (a Suzuki Alto minicar is 1475mm wide), but width, of course, is not so much a problem when rationing road space.
The Smart is reasonably tall which makes it easy to get into and out of.
Okay, so the baby looks good and is short but are the dynamics flawed?
The car is expensive – you can buy a lot more for a lot less.
In the seven years the Smart has been around, other small cars have made substantial advances, and $20,000 buys a comfortable, well-specified supermini that thinks nothing of a non-stop drive from Auckland to Wellington.
I immediately warmed to the Smart after seeing them on the streets of Paris and London but was underwhelmed by my first drive.
A noisy 599cc three-cylinder, turbocharged engine powered early Smarts. This has been replaced by another noisy motor, now with a capacity of 698cc, but the number of cylinders is unchanged.
On paper the statistics don’t look bad.
The motor develops 37kW (50bhp) but a 45kW (61bhp) power option is available.
Expect a top speed of 135km/h and a leisurely 0 to 100km/h time of just over 18 seconds. Not too many cars are that slow these days.
As expected, the fuel consumption is low. In the official combined cycle, the Smart Fortwo returns 4.7 litres/100km (60.1mpg), a figure than can be matched by some minicars and small diesels. So there are no advances for the Smart in the fuel economy race.
The car feels crude to drive, not so much because of the mechanical noise. In fact, the throbby three-cylinder note is quite appealing, rather like a Daihatsu Charade or an older Porsche 911.
But the 0.7-litre power unit sounds thrashy and strained when you give the accelerator some curry – as you will need to so you can keep up with urban traffic flows. The Smart is okay with the pace of city traffic but you know you’re working the mechanicals hard because they tell you as much.
Hampering smooth progress is a jerky six-speed semi-automatic sequential gearbox.
You push the lever forward to change up and pull it back to select lower ratios or select a less than gentle full automatic mode. It’s all a bit fiddly.
The car is at its best around town, which is the object of the exercise. There’s good visibility, the turning circle is tight and parking is a breeze, even though the steering is heavy and lifeless.
Out on the open road you get a feeling of vulnerability, not so much because of the car’s size but as a consequence of its driving dynamics. Not surprisingly with the rear-mounted engine, the Smart blows around in the wind, something that will be a near constant dilemma in New Zealand where the wind blows most days of the year.
You might expect low gearing but it’s not. At 100km/h, the little motor is spinning at just over 2700rpm, yet somehow 80km/h seems a more natural cruising speed.
Nor does the Smart feel especially agile.
The early Smart’s heavy understeer has been tempered somewhat by fitting the Mercedes Electronic Stability Programme (ESP), but the car is still no great shakes in the handling department.
EPS has also slightly softened the ride, but the progress is still bumpy and not as accomplished as many other current small cars.
At 740kg, the car is no lightweight, not surprising given safety legislation and a level of equipment that includes twin airbags and the much-needed air conditioning.
Last year a total of 152,000 Smarts were sold, a 22 percent gain on 2003. Yet insiders reckon Daimler Chrysler needs to sell at least 200,000 Smarts a year to make the project viable.
They’re already addressing volume by introducing the longer Forfour and roadster/coupe versions, but it will always be the original Fortwo that is the real smart Smart.
I really want to like this two-seater car.
It looks right, is low polluting and is sensible transport even if load space is limited.
But the Smart is noisy and crude to drive and, in the words of one owner, it makes the next car you buy seem so much better.
story by Donn Anderson