In a world of inclement climate change, emission taxes and overcrowded urban motoring space, the new Smart could be just the motoring alternative for contemporary urbanites.
The collaboration between Swiss watchmaker Swatch and Mercedes-Benz that heralded the first generation Smart car was a runaway success in sales (770 000 units), but it made no money.
For the second generation, Forfour and Roadster models have been discontinued, and in a market more receptive to micro-cars, the new Fortwo needs to help the Smart brand break even in the 2008 financial year.
Essentially the key characteristic of the Smart Fortwo - its diminutive size - has remained in proportion, with the new model only 43mm wider and 195mm longer than the previous model. With the Fortwo being only a touch under 2.7-metres in length, and sporting a 1.86-metre wheelbase, nose to kerb parking is still an option.
The new Fortwo continues the disarmingly cute styling of the original Smart. With the wheelbase constituting such a large proportion of the car, the proportions, with wheels mounted at the extreme rear and just under the front headlights, lend the Smart Fortwo a cuteness coefficient no other car can possibly match.
The rear view, with double-vertically separated taillights and split tailgate reinforces the huggable design language, while the elongated front headlights and new grille with mesh-inserts have cleaned up the styling remarkably.
The colour offset Tridion safety cell, with its exposed frame which runs in a curve from the bottom of the front wheel arch to become the B-pillar breaks-up the shape of the Fortwo perfectly.
Open the large doors - they make up two-thirds of the Smart side-profile - and a spacious interior greets you and your companion. The instruments are slightly illogically grouped, with the rev-counter mounted in a separate dial mounted atop the dashboard, while the rest of the controls are more ergonomically designed.
Ease into the seats and you'll find they are hardly supportive enough. There is surfeit of stowage space though, especially in and around steering wheel and in front of the passenger, yet none of it is covered or is lockable, which makes it useless in urban South Africa.
The feature list is comprehensive enough with air-conditioning, radio/CD-player, 12-volt sockets augmented by front and side airbags.
However, for a car classified by its makers as being a "premium model", the materials could certainly have been of a better quality. Fit and finish was less than impressive with a piece of trim breaking off the passenger stowage space during our test drive.
With the two hardtop versions (Pulse and Passion) featuring a nearly indestructible transparent polycarbonate panoramic roof, the interior is perpetually bathed in ambient light if you choose to retract the roof-blind, which imbues the cabin with an airy feel.
Boot space is still rather tight at 220-litres, accommodating a gymbag and a couple of bags of Woolies groceries. If you want to pack in the golf clubs you can flip down the passenger seat for extra stowage space.
Beyond the seal-puppy cute styling the clever packaging, low weight and upgraded engines converge to produce a very willing urban transport solution.
Two variants of the same 1-litre, inline-tripple engine are offered. In the baseline Pure version you get a naturally aspirated version with 52kW and 92Nm, whilst in the pulse and passion cabriolet models turbocharging raises the game to 62kW and 121Nm.
All models are rear-wheel drive too, quite an oddity for such a small car in the contemporary market place. With the engine being rear-mounted, to ensure maximum packaging efficiency and interior space, there was little room left to fit a torque-converter to the automated transmission.
An automated manual five-speed transmission (essentially a clutchless manual) drives all the models. It features steering mounted paddle-shift engagement on the turbocharged variants. With the Smart range averaging a kerb weight of only 750kg (790kg for the cabrio) there is hardly a lack of verve in the drivetrain balance.
On the road
Small, rear-wheel drive and sporting a tidy power-to-weight ratio, the Smart took on a power cut- and traffic congested-Johannesburg city centre with alacrity. We had the Garmin GPS system developed for the Smart onboard (R4000 optional extra) and set about seeking the worst traffic jams we could find, keen to see just how small a gap we could squeeze the Smart through.
The wheelbase might be proportionally huge, but it's short in absolute terms, and with a DeDion rear axle the ride is very harsh of surface irregularities. My passenger absolutely trembled at the prospect of driving through another industrial area after we nearly went airborne twice crossing railway tracks.
While the ride is harsh, the handling is neat enough, ensuring lighting- quick changes in direction at low speed, although it's a bit unnerving at higher speeds with the peculiarly weighted power steering not rendering enough steering feedback. Squeezing through gaps in traffic is comically easy since the Smart essentially has no blind spots.
Other road users were constantly caught unawares by the accelerating verve of the Smart, too. We only drove the turbocharged models, and although 121Nm might sound underwhelming it endows the Smart Pulse and Passion models with an indecent turn of pace in the mid-range.
It runs up to a 145km/h limited topspeed, while the 0-100km/h sprint is covered in 13.3 seconds and 10.9 seconds for the naturally aspirated and turbo models respectively, all this whilst only consuming 4.9-litre per 100km. Unfortunately these keen performance figures also expose the cars biggest foible, its gearbox.
The clutchless manual five-speed gearbox is unacceptably languid in its shifts, and even if you lift of the throttle when using the paddle-shift function the shift action is still jerky and achingly slow. It ruins your momentum, and making a darting run for a gap in traffic - the Smart's raison d'être - is a nerve-wracking affair, as you never know when it?s going to engage with full conviction.
It's even worse on inclines, where, despite hill start assist, it only holds the car for about three seconds before disengaging. This means that when you lift your foot off the brake, you're likely to roll backwards...
Speaking of the brake pedal, being floor-hinged and extraordinarily narrow it hardly inspires confidence either, and although you get ABS and brake assist, you still get drum brakes at the rear. Although with only 900kg-odd to stop fully laden, the drums are probably excusable.
Ahead of its time?
The new Smart is great idea. As emissions taxes hit South Africa and the urban sprawl reduces more and more commuters to negotiating traffic madness, an efficient, environmentally-friendly car is the smart choice.
As European Union emissions restrictions are also aiming at lowering manufacturers' carbon dioxide output by calculating an average across the range of cars they produce, having the Smart in its stable can ensure Mercedes continues to produce AMG models for example.
Unfortunately, the pricing is way too steep for a car that has an obstinate, practically undriveable gearbox - a shame considering just how keen the engines are.
As a third car, primarily in the urban runabout role or as a conscience-soothing purchase, it might make sense to the well-heeled environmentally-minded individual willing to pay a premium. A very small niche indeed.
Smart Fortwo coupé pure (52 kW) R130 000
Smart Fortwo coupe pulse (62 kW) R140 000
Smart Fortwo cabrio passion (62 kW) R156 000
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