WHEN THE winsome little Smart Fortwo city car was launched 16 years ago, editors tried to outdo one another in commissioning ever more outrageous test drives. As in: “Let’s take one to the Arctic Circle,” or: “Let’s send one on the trans-Canada highway,” and other such capers. That’s because the one-box tiddler didn’t seem a proper car. And in many ways that was true: the original Smart wasn’t a proper car, which put off some potential customers.
So at the launch of this third-generation Fortwo, the PR guys from Mercedes-Benz’s Smart arm were anxious to point out that the car has matured into a practical and in some ways more conventional vehicle.
What the designers haven’t messed with is the length of the car. A big part of the Smart’s brilliance as a city machine is that it can be parked in tiny spaces, thanks to its 2695mm overall length. That’s less than 9ft, which makes the Smart considerably shorter than, for example, the original Mini.
Another thing that hasn’t been lost is the essential “smartness” of the car’s look. It does, though, appear more grown-up than the previous version — when you park it next to an old Smart, it looks as though it’s morphed from a cute kid into a bulked-up teenager. One who has unfortunately inherited his dad’s outsized schnoz — the newly extended nose is necessary to give the Smart better pedestrian protection to meet the latest regulations. It also gives the Smart a more conventional two-box look. And the new car is 100mm wider than the outgoing model, adding to its more muscular attitude.
The LED brake lights and front daytime running lights give the car a bit of Mercedes-style class, and the Smart inherits the split tailgate of the previous car, which makes it feel like a very, very small Range Rover.
Climb in and the first thing you notice is the extra space imparted by the increase in width, so two blokes can get comfortable without risking elbow contact. The feeling of space is enhanced by the less aggressive rake of the windscreen compared with the old car. The interior designers have gone to town, particularly with the goggle-eyed ventilation spheres on top of the dash — one wit likened the look of the centre console with its two circular air vents to Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. Now try getting that image out of your head.
So the car feels spacious and comfortable, and finding a good driving position isn’t difficult, although we’d have preferred a steering wheel that adjusted for reach as well as rake. Build quality is good. As with the previous Smart, though, the boot is tiny, because that’s where the engine lives.
Again, as before, the Smart is available with a range of three-cylinder engines — when it arrives in Britain in February next year, it’ll sport a 999cc petrol unit with 70bhp and a turbocharged 898cc engine producing 89bhp. Both will be equipped with five-speed manual gearboxes, with a dual-clutch option arriving around summer.
Crucially the 2015 Fortwo features a redeveloped suspension that allows more wheel travel and results in more agile handling and a more composed ride
We tried the more powerful 89bhp model with the manual five-speed first. Within the first couple of miles it was clear that the new Smart had grown up dynamically as well. The wider track gives it a reassuring stance on the road, and crucially the new Fortwo features a redeveloped suspension that allows more wheel travel and results in more agile handling and a more composed ride. The turning circle, much tighter than that of a black cab, will make you laugh the first time you experience it.
The raspy little three-cylinder turbo delivers eager performance. True, 89bhp isn’t a lot, but in a car weighing well under 900kg it provides performance that feels genuinely swift. The manual gearbox isn’t the slickest one out there, but it does the job without feeling obstructive. For the record, the car will reach 62mph in 10.4 seconds and a top speed of 96mph.
Far less impressive was the 70bhp car with the dual-clutch automatic. I’ll give the Smart engineers the benefit of the doubt because the cars we drove were prototypes, but the gearbox was desperately slow to respond and there were some very odd vibrations. The car itself was also extremely slow.
We drove the new Smart Forfour too, which has four doors and an extra 795mm in length. It retains the Smart family look in a package that is far more versatile than the previous Forfour.
There are some brilliant touches, such as the rear-seat squabs that flip and fold flush into the floor, so you can put surprisingly tall items in the back-seat area. The seat backs also fold perfectly flat and you can remove the rear centre console, which in effect turns the Forfour into a small Transit van (OK, a very small Transit van). Even better, you can get four adults on board without having to remove anyone’s legs.
The Forfour has an even more composed and compliant ride than the Fortwo, which we reckon may be down to the extra wheelbase length and additional weight. As with its sibling, the steering’s feel and feedback are reasonably good, and it’s a surprisingly chuckable beast.
So the Smart really has grown up. The things we didn’t like on the old version — handling, ride quality, refinement — have been largely dealt with. Does this mean that commissioning editors won’t be asking writers to take Smart cars on ridiculous road trips? Well, I sincerely hope not, because I quite fancy a go at the 30,000-mile pan-American highway from Alaska to Argentina. Any takers?
A great city car grows up
Smart Fortwo Passion specifications
- Engine: 3 cylinders, turbocharged petrol
- Power: 89bhp @ 5500rpm
- Torque: 100 lb ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission: 5-speed manual
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 10.4sec
- Top speed: 96mph
- Fuel: 67.3mpg
- CO2: 97g/km (estimated)
- Road tax band: A (free)
- Price: £11,720
- Release date: January 2015
Smart Fortwo rivals
Toyota iQ 1.0 VVT-i, £12,100
- For Clever use of interior space
- Against Getting old; doesn’t look as fresh as newcomers such as the Smart
Volkswagen 1.0 High Up!, £11,760
- For Probably the best city car to drive; VW build quality
- Against Boxy; bland styling