REVIEW DATE: 28 Sep 2007
Does the second generation smart fortwo have a place in today's citycar market? Jonathan Crouch decides
The smart fortwo has much tougher citycar competition to face in second generation guise but it still has its place for customers who only need two seats and want miniscule running costs in a tiny, fashionable package.
The smart story is a tale of two halves. The brand was originally conceived as a collaboration between watchmaker Swatch and Mercedes-Benz and it brought us one of the most curious and cleverest cars of the last century when what is now known as the smart fortwo debuted in 1998. Sceptics doubted that many urban customers would buy such a tiny, slow and odd-looking little car when for much the same money, they could have a more conventional supermini. They were wrong and the first generation car shifted over 770,000 units.
Sadly for smart, those same customers were largely less interested when the brand tried to bring them larger and faster cars - the forfour family hatchback, the roadster and the stillborn formore SUV. Nor indeed were many other buyers. By the time that management realised their mistake, the brand had haemorrhaged billions of euros. Time for a rethink. All other model lines were axed, the workforce was halved and a crack team from Mercedes was brought in to focus on the car people wanted, the car smart does best. The result is a second generation fortwo model so much improved even the Americans now want it.
Criticising the smart for feeling a little out of its depth in the cut and thrust of motorway traffic is a little like moaning that a Hummer feels rather clumsy around town. As before, this is a car designed primarily for urban use, where it feels very much at home, enabling its owners to snatch parking spaces that other citycar drivers couldn't even look at: how many other urban runabouts can you leave face-on to the kerb for example? Just as impressive is its astonishingly tight 8.75m turning circle - that's just three and a half turns lock to lock.
Yet this car must also be able to undertake longer town to town journeys and it was here that the first generation model always let itself down, courtesy of a wheezy 0.7-litre engine, a hateful, jerky semi-automatic gearbox, a bumpy ride and vague steering. The engine issue wasn't too difficult to solve thanks to smart's existing relationship with Mitsubishi who supplied an altogether more suitable 1.0-litre unit for a MK2 model which features an improved Getrag five-speed gearbox. It's still semi-automatic (when most would probably prefer a no-frills manual 'box) and despite shift times that are twice as fast, can still lurch a little until you get used to it. However, once you do, the whole thing works pretty well and the extra torque of the 1.0-litre engine means that there isn't so much cog-swapping going on anyway.
"The latest fortwo is certainly bigger and cleverer"
You can opt for gearchange paddles behind the wheel for those times when you come over all sporty round the one-way system, though that's not something likely to often happen to owners of the rather feeble entry-level 61bhp petrol model which really is for town transport only. If exclusively urban use is what you want, you're probably better off going for the 54bhp cdi diesel version, billed as the 'world's most economical production car'.
British buyers understandably prefer to limit their interest mainly to the 71bhp and turbocharged 84bhp versions of the same engine and a few even go as far as trying the BRABUS model, sporty in look but still resolutely smart in feel. The improvements to the ride and the quicker, sharper steering now mean that you won't feel too bad about attempting a longer journey in a fortwo these days and although the top speed in most versions is limited to 90mph, the pokier models get there surprisingly quickly.
As ever, there's a bodystyle choice of either this hard-topped coupe or the cheeky cabriolet with its electrically-retracting fabric roof and removable roof bars. Both have grown a bit - to all of 2,695mm long - thanks to the need for more cabin and luggage space as well as the demands of fresh pedestrian crash legislation. Still, this remains the smallest production car you can buy. By comparison, a conventional citycar like, say, a Peugeot 107, is 3410mm long, though unlike the smart, it can offer a set of rear seats.
Somewhat unusually, the fortwo's passenger seat is mounted 15cm further back than that of the driver so that shoulder room can be maximised, something further helped by the 4.3cm increase in width allowing for an additional 3cm of elbow room compared to the old car. Luggage space is still tiny of course but the increase from 150 to 220 litres over the MK1 model is more than you get in a MINI without folding the seats. In theory, there's up to 340 litres if you stack right up to the roof. The two-piece tailgate with its separately-opening glass window is wide-opening and the bottom part is strong enough for you to sit on it during, say, carboot sales.
On the move when you're being bullied by other larger road users, it's understandable to worry a little about crash-worthiness. Perhaps that's why smart choose to emphasise the car's safety cell with these visible dark-painted structural elements which make up part of the fortwo's distinctive two-tone styling. With its wider track and ESP, it's more stable these days too, helping to prevent an accident in the first place. Standard equipment includes ABS with brake assist and twin front airbags - plus I'd go for the optional side 'bags too, which could be life-savers.
Most fortwo variants are sold in the £7,000 to £9,500 bracket, though fit the right options and it is theoretically possible to pay up to £15,000 for one. The mainstream price range sees this car pitched at around £1,500 less than its closest competitor, Toyota's only slightly larger iQ, a rival that does have the advantage of rear seats. Still, if you want rear seats, there are any number of cheaper citycars you could consider: a conventional model like a Peugeot 107 costs from just £7,000 while something funkier like Fiat's 500 will cost you about the same as a plusher smart. The fortwo cabriolet has much less competition and is offered at a premium of just under £2,000 over prices of the equivalent coupe versions.
The complete fortwo range starts with the econobasic 61bhp model but it really is worth finding £300 more to get the 71bhp power unit or better still, the turbocharged 84bhp engine that starts from around £9,000. Lower-order fortwo petrol buyers get the clever micro hybrid drive system fitted as standard, with its start/stop system cutting fuel costs. As to whether you'd buy a plusher smart when for the same money you could have a larger supermini, well, it really depends on what you want.
The introduction of mhd (micro hybrid drive) in more recent second generation fortwo models has made a big difference to fuel consumption, with improvements of nearly 30% around town where the system's start/stop function disables the engine at traffic lights or in urban queues. As a result, the 71bhp model manages 57.6mpg in town and 65.7mpg on the combined cycle, putting out just 103g/km of CO2. You can't beat a diesel of course when it comes to running costs and the cdi manages an astonishing 80.7mpg in town use and 83.1mpg on the combined cycle, whilst outputting just 88g/km of CO2. Clip-on, clip-off plastic panels help with cheap insurance groups which for mainstream models vary between 2-3, while residual values are amongst the best in class.
The smart fortwo has never been more relevant and it remains as fashionable as ever for the urbanites who appreciate its quirky charms. Yes of course, there are more sensible small car choices you could make for the money but then, let's be honest: if you really want to get about town sensibly, you shouldn't be buying a car in the first place. You should be getting the bus.
Assuming you agree that life should be fun as well as cost-effective. And assuming that you really don't need more than two seats and minimal luggage space, this smart still has what it takes to put a smile on your face. And in today's often dismal world, that makes it a car worth having around.
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