It's been 10 years since the first Smart city car -- then known simply as the Smart coupe -- strode onto the congested high streets of Europe. Now it's time for the second generation Smart fortwo.
Styled to be a dead ringer for the old car, the new model is noticeably bigger in every dimension, primarily because of new safety regulations and Smart's assault on the US market -- surprisingly the American importer has taken about 30,000 US$100 deposits for the fortwo. Thankfully, though, the car hasn't grown from a petite runabout into a limousine; the second-gen Smart is 195mm longer and 43mm wider than before yet still only measures 2.7 metres long, 1.6 metre wide and 1.5 metre tall. Indeed it's still so short that, during the fortwo's press launch last week, we managed to fit two fortwos end to end in one car space.
Although Smart call the fortwo a coupe, it's best to think of it as a three-door hatch. The rear tailgate is split into two halves, requiring you to lift up the glass portion before pulling down the tailgate portion. There's a retractable, and removable, cargo blind covering an expanded cargo area -- Smart claims there's 340 litres of volume back there. Storage in the cabin is improved too; the more formal, upright dashboard -- necessitated by Smart's push into the US -- now houses a small, lockable glovebox. There's also a set of bins in the door, a pair of cupholders ahead of the gear lever and a cavity either side of the steering wheel column. That's in addition to the space behind the front seats, which includes two cargo nets. Despite the fact the fortwo is rear-engined, there's no storage space under the car's bonnet.
The car's tall stance ensures that the fortwo's occupants -- all two of them -- are well catered for. There's plenty of leg room and the seats have enough travel, allowing shorter folks to liberate more storage space if needs be.
On the road, the fortwo is surprisingly peppy, more so than we expected from a car powered by a 999cc three-cylinder engine, even one that only weighs 770kg. In our 100-plus kilometre drive during the launch, we had no problem keeping up with traffic and the fortwo's diminutive size was great for zipping into small gaps in traffic. Initially we had worried about feeling overwhelmed on the road but the Smart's high seating position, not to mention the car's Mercedes-Benz engineered four-star safety rating, allayed our fears. Unlike most new cars on the road today, power steering is a AU$490 option; we only missed it when getting into and out of parking spots. The Smart felt like it could be thrown into corners, yet was planted and stable at the same time, but we'll reserve our judgement until we've conducted a full review.
A five-speed manual transmission with automated clutch comes as standard. While we appreciate that this transmission aims to offer the best of both worlds, matching the fuel efficiency of a manual with the painless driving experience of an automatic around town, we do wish that Smart offered a traditional manual transmission.
Chalk it up to habit, but driving the fortwo smoothly required more concentration than a conventional car. That's because if you don't ease off the throttle ever so slightly when the car's between gears, it will lurch forward and back, like a smoothed out kangaroo hop, especially on the change from first to second gear. You'll have to do this too if you plump for the optional Softtouch automatic gear programme (AU$750) which changes the gears for you.
Standard safety equipment includes anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, hill start assist, driver and passenger airbags, side airbags and seat belts with tensioners and force limiters. Equipment wise there's power windows, but not mirrors, climate control air-conditioning, keyless entry and a tinted, transparent panoramic roof made of polycarbonate with integrated sun blind.
Clad in the skin of dead cow, the car's steering wheel feels fantastic in the hand; there's also a pair of wheel-mounted paddle shifters which make the gear lever's +/- shift redundant. We developed two gripes during our brief drive of the fortwo: pedals which are offset to the left, and the tachometer which is mounted in a pod next to the clock atop the middle of the dashboard.
We're surprised that a car that we think appeals to a younger audience only comes equipped equipped as standard with a two-speaker, single CD radio. To get MP3 capability, you'll have to option the AU$690 radio upgrade package that nets you a six-disc MP3-compatible CD stacker. Want to connect your MP3 player directly to the sound system? That'll be AU$390 for more speakers, a subwoofer and a MP3-player interface. Although you may be better off just coughing up AU$2,000 for the primo package which includes automatic gear shifting, heated leather seats and electric mirrors, as well as the improved radio and sound system.
It's not for everyone -- similar money will get you a larger Yaris, Mazda 2 or Fiesta, with seating for four or five. But the fortwo should appeal to those who have a strong environmental streak (Smart claims fuel usage of 4.7L/100km and a CO2 output of 112g/km), those who desire unique looks (the body panels have contrasting colours!) or those appreciate unique engineering (it's a rear-engined, rear-wheel drive breath of fresh air in a world of front-wheel drive blandness).
Our first taste of the Smart fortwo was a good, even surprising one, and we look forward to giving it a proper run through its paces -- taking it to the shops, fitting in a whole bunch of cricket kit and maybe even a quick belt up the freeway.