Models Covered: (600 cc petrol [smart & pure, smart & pulse, smart & passion, smart city cabriolet, smart crossblade, smart fortwo, fortwo Brabus])
To say the Smart had a turbulent genesis would be understating the case severely. Although there was not too much wrong with the product, the wrangles between Mercedes-Benz and the SMH (Swatch Group), the firing of senior executives and the failure of the ‘Smartville’ factory in France to hit the build deadline attracted headlines of the worst sort for the project. Awarded the European Design Prize in Maastricht in 1996 the Smart City Coupe project has been with us for some time, although left-hand drive official imports started for the first time as recently as October 2000.
To give some idea as to the late entry to the UK, by the time domestic deliveries started, the Smart was already in its Mark 4 variant and the Mark 5 was introduced at the end of February 2001. Three models were available at launch, the entry level smart & pure, powered by a 44bhp three-cylinder engine, the sportier smart & pulse, powered by a 55bhp version of the same engine with uprated turbo boost, and the luxury range-topper, the 55bhp smart & passion.
The Mark 5 version saw a number of changes, the key one being a boost to 61bhp for the smart & pulse, underlining its sporty credentials. New colours and fabrics were announced along with some minor changes to standard equipment, lighting systems and suspension. The Smart City Cabrio open top car, based on the smart & passion trim level was unveiled in March 2000, with British orders starting in April 2001. Right hand drive versions were introduced to the UK in autumn 2001, but the CDi diesel version has yet to appear, having been on sale in Europe since December 1999. In summer 2002 the Smart crossblade debuted, a chopped down version of the cabriolet with a distinctly big price - £15,990 - and designed for those with big egos.
Then, at the start of 2004, the City Coupe and City Cabrio models were re-named as the Fortwo Coupe and the Fortwo Cabrio. This development was swiftly followed by the introduction of the body-kitted Brabus models with their 74bhp power outputs. An all new Smart fortwo arrived in the autumn of 2007.
What You Get
Whichever way you buy your Smart however, for the time being, it will only come with left hand drive. The factory at Hambach in Eastern France can’t manage right hand drive production for the UK until 2002. Still, the car’s so short and narrow anyway that left hand drive shouldn’t matter. For the record, it’s 2.5m long (two feet shorter than a Mini) and 1.45m wide. The three-cylinder engine is transversely mounted under the boot at a 48-degree angle to drive the back wheels.
Two basic bodystyles are available: a 3-door ‘City-Coupe’ and a Cabriolet version (only offered in the UK in smart & passion guise). Either way, in spite of its size, the Smart manages to be astonishingly versatile. The passenger seat folds flat or can be taken out completely, whilst MCC claims that cabin room for front seat occupants is better than a VW Polo. Once inside, it’s hard to argue: you certainly feel like you’re in a much bigger car. The body panels meanwhile, come in a choice of different colours and are interchangeable. A complete set can, apparently, be fitted in a very short time ‘for the price of a new suit’. Taking a look at the price list, it’s more likely to be a Boateng than a Burton number.
Safety was a key development priority and here, the Smart claims to better all its citycar rivals, offering safety standards comparable with a mid-range family saloon. The steel passenger cell retains its shape in the event of a collision and reduces the effect of impact to a minimum. Other safety elements include the sandwich platform construction, front and rear crash boxes and a crash management system. To avoid a crash in the first place, there’s ‘Trustplus’, an electronic stability programme which reduces power and applies gear intervention to correct the car if it swerves. Twin front airbags, ABS, self-tensioning seatbelts, knee impact bolsters and a collapsible steering column are all standard, and the Smart rated highly in recent Euro-NCAP crash tests.
What to Look For
The main problem with the Smart that’s been reported to date has been the exploding rear screen. Under certain circumstances it can shatter due to the glass failing to cope with the heat generated by the heating element. The problem lies in the shape of the element and on newer models the design is changed from a horizontal layout to one where the bars are turned up at the end to resemble a letter ‘U’. Existing owners can have the modified screen fitted under warranty by an authorised dealer if the screen breaks, but many won’t want to wait. Best to buy one with the new style screen already fitted.
Smarts are also known to leak through the rear hatch, the rear windscreen wiper motor resting against a rubber strip and deforming it. This happens to most models so don’t think a slightly damp hatch is anything too serious. Electric windows have been known to jam and sunroof blinds are flimsy and can fall to pieces.
Pre December 1999 cars aren’t fitted with the wider front tyres, double wishbone front suspension and electronic brakeforce distribution. Early Smart sales were damaged by an infamous picture of a car sitting on its rear screen by the side of a snowbound German autobahn, and the later cars are notably more stable than their predecessors, with a degree of reassuring understeer tuned into the chassis. If you are buying an import version, make sure any service record is clear and that the car’s history is adequately explained. There isn’t a shortage of used Smart models, although finding one in exactly your preferred level of trim may be more of an uphill task.
(approx based on 2000 smart & passion) If you were expecting Smart ownership to bite back the moment you needed a spare part, rest easy. A new clutch assembly retails for a fairly reasonable £165, and an exhaust system costs about the same. Front brake pads are only around £25, which given that they’re about the size of a matchbox would seem about right. Rear pads are a bit pricier at approaching £60. An alternator is £140 and a starter motor a mere £90, whilst a headlamp can be bought for £70.
On the Road
On average, most cars on European roads carry just 1.2 passengers and 80% of them in urban areas are occupied by the driver alone. Nearly half of Europe’s registered cars travel less than 20 miles a day - or around 7,000 miles a year. And, as we all know, the vast majority of journeys are short and for leisure or non-work-related purposes. On top of this, cars tend to spend 90% of their time parked or stuck in traffic jams.
The Smart takes a pragmatic approach to these facts. The driver gets a 6-speed clutchless and sequential gearbox (just like the saloon car racers): you simply push up to go up the gearbox and down to go down. Easy in theory, but it tends to take a little practice before you get the hang of seamless up and down changing.
The engine output depends on the model you choose, with the entry-level smart & pure variant developing 44bhp. The sportier smart & pulse gets extra turbo boost to push its output up to 61bhp. Finally, the top smart & passion variant is somewhere in between, with 54bhp. If that doesn’t sound very much, then bear in mind that this engine doesn’t have much to move. The car can only carry two people and it weighs a mere 720kg. Rest to sixty takes 16.8 seconds on the way to an artificially limited top speed of 85mph. None of this gives you much idea as to exactly how much of a hoot the little Smart is to drive. It isn’t quite as fast as, say, a Fiat Seicento Sporting or a Mini Cooper, but crucially, it rides better, feels safer and is much better built. You just have to put up with a lack of a back seat and a tiny luggage storage area, that’s all. As you might expect, fuel economy is dazzlingly good (expect at least 60mpg on a regular basis) and if you’re willing to unleash the exhibitionist in you and park it nose in to the kerb, you’ll draw more stares than a Ferrari parked in the next bay.