So this is the car that will save Smart?
Given that it’s now Smart’s only model, yes. The Roadster was canned at the end of 2004 and the ForFour last year, leaving only the original two-seat city car. It keeps the ForTwo name, despite no longer having to distinguish itself from its deceased bigger brother. Sales of the other two were disastrous and Smart has never made a profit… Parent DaimlerChrysler thought about selling the brand or just closing it down, but did its sums and saw that it could make a profit on a new generation of ForTwo if it made it cheaper to build and started selling it in America. And it didn’t want to throw away the feverish customer loyalty the little car has built up over its eight expensive years. So unlike the Roadster and ForFour, the new ForTwo has to stick closely to the original Smart Formula.
So what’s changed?
Much of the cost reduction is in the way the car is built. It doesn’t feel cheaper - in fact the reverse is true – but it is visibly bigger. Of the extra 195mm in length, only 55mm is in the wheelbase and benefits cabin space; the rest is in the overhangs to meet European pedestrian crash safety regulations at the front, and American rear impact standards at the back. The nose is higher, more angular and masculine, again to meet the Euro regs, and the rear window has a gentler slope for a more coupe-like profile. There are detail changes like the twin rather than triple rear lamps and horizontal rather than vertical door handles. But the key Smart features like the exposed Tridion chassis and drop-down tailgate remain.
The big news is the new engine; still a triple, but this time from Mitsubishi and 1.0-litre rather than 700cc. The 61bhp and 71bhp versions are naturally aspirated; only the 84bhp gets a turbo until the debut of the Brabus version at the Geneva Motor Show in March. The transmission is still a sequential manual with the option of an auto mode, but now it’s a five-speed rather than six, made by Getrag and with the promise of smoother shifting. The steering is now 10 percent quicker with the option of speed-sensitive electric power assistance. ESP and Brake Assist are standard across the range.
Very. US regulations mean the old S-shaped dash has made way for a dull, rectilinear effort. A little of the old Smart madness remains in the eyeball-on-stalk clock and rev counter and the interchangeable accessory stack in front of the gear lever. Both the sensible layout and the improved cabin materials make it feel like a more grown-up car; the heavier (US crash regs again) doors even shut with a more Merc-like thunk. Some of the charm has gone, but the interior is now a better and slightly bigger place in which to pass the hours of urban gridlock. Seat comfort and driving position were great in our left-hook test cars; we hope Smart makes a better job of the right-hand-drive conversion than it did last time. And the boot is significantly bigger; up 70 litres to 220, or 340 if you load it to the roof; you’ll be very surprised at how much a Smart will swallow.
And to drive?
Way better, in every respect. The Mitsu motors keep the mad three-pot thrum but deliver more torque and less thrash. Fully laden, the middle 71bhp unit gives more than adequate motorway performance; the 84bhp isn’t radically quicker, as the figures (60mph in 13.3 or 10.9sec) suggest. The gearchange is significantly quicker and smoother; not perfect still, but you’re not constantly conscious of its shortcomings, as you were in the old car. The ride is still hard over some urban cracks and craters, but not as harsh as the old car’s could be. And the steering is transformed; there’s little feel from the electric system but it’s far quicker and more direct. The non-assisted system isn’t excessively heavy, but the lack of help exposes its still slightly rubbery responses. And when driving you really don’t notice the slight increase in size; the Smart remains absurdly easy to manoeuvre and park in town, and anything else feels bloated after it.
But will it be any cheaper?
Sadly, not. The entry Pure will start from £6840 when right-hand-drive deliveries start in September, a slight increase on current prices. A well-optioned top-spec Passion will cross the five-figure barrier. This prices the two-seat Smart directly against four-seat rivals like the Toyota Aygo and its siblings, but the Smart has always been a discretionary rather than a value purchase. Economy has improved to a little over 60mpg for the atmo engines, and a little under for the turbo. Both have emissions under 120g/km meaning they’re likely to be London congestion-charge exempt under the new rules in force from 2010, while service intervals will stretch to 25,000 miles.
If you liked the old Smart – some loved it, some hated it – you’ll probably like this one too, accepting that a little of the original’s quirkiness has been traded for maturity. If you didn’t, you might find the better transmission and handling will win you round. But Smart isn’t trying too hard to convince you; the basic formula remains the same.