My editor gleefully lopped the keys onto my desk. "I've just parked it across the bay and there's probably space for two more!" he exclaimed.
Oh dear, the Smart ForTwo had arrived.
What's it about
I don't mind the occasional gimmick on a car. I am a big fan of the electric sliding door and I love Mini's very pointless little cabin lights that can be altered to suit your mood. The lights may serve no practical purpose, but they are cool nice-to-haves nonetheless.
However, when the entire car is a gimmick, that becomes somewhat problematic.
Like the Smart ForTwo, for instance. As a concept, the ForTwo makes a lot of sense. Especially in the crowded European cities for which this vision between Mercedes and watchmaker Swatch was conceived, one would imagine.
It is an all-new model, but you'd be hard-pressed to spot the differences, since the manufacturer has decided to stick with the previous model's tried Tridiron safety cell and coloured body panels.
But it is extremely compact for quick city runs, making the most of those opportunistic gaps in peak hour traffic and squeezing into the most impossible makeshift parking bays - it's all too easy in this Smart. However, given the size of cars one is used to piloting, adjusting to the dimensions of the Smart is especially challenging. You're always expecting more car.
This also means that you involuntarily wince while moving across lanes for fear of swiping the little rear on another car's nose. We even noticed how, if you're not paying much attention after depositing goods into the little boot, there is a tendency to walk past the driver's door handle, snatching at air. It's hilarious!
This car's biggest drawcard, and there's no real surprise here, is its size.
The cabin isn't huge, but depending on how tall you are, there is some space behind the two seats in which to stow smaller goods, like a handbag or grocery parcel. Should you be carting something bigger, the tiny boot will have to do. It won't take much, but it is fairly talland if you arrange your parcels just right, you should be able to squeeze a fair amount in it. It has a split tailgatethat could also double as a very handy seat for those weighing under 100 kg or a picnic table at impromptu get-togethers.
But whatever you do, try to stay out the driver's seat.
Materials used for the facia and the rest of the interior are decidedly horrid. Ergonomics are an obvious study in "working with small spaces"; it's different and would require some adjusting, but everything works. And the pod housing the speedometeris extremely cute.
Generally though,the entire facia would definitely be more at home in a car with a sticker price of R70 000. Not on a car that will set you back close to R140 000. For that amount, you could buy a real car with space and a half-decent interior.
Whichprobably explains why most ForTwos spend their lives as mobile estate agent or hair salon ads…
Beneath the metal
The test unit provided sourced its power from a naturally aspirated three-cylinder 1.0-litre with 52 kW and92 Nm on tap. This engine is EU4 compliant.
ForTwo is tiny. It has a wheelbase of more than 1.8m, an overall length of just under 2.7m and a front track of 1.2m which is wider by about 100mm at the rear wheels.
Suspension is via a McPherson strut front axle and anti-roll bar and a DeDion rear axle with coil springs.
It comes with a fair share of gadgetry, though, which includes ABS with ESP, EBD and EBA, hill start assist and acceleration skid control.
Drive is through an automated five-speed manual gearbox. Urgh.
In a word - scary. Or just plain recalcitrant, if you're left to deal with the semi-automatic gearbox the ForTwo uses to chug along. Timing is everything when lifting off the accelerator, and shifts up or down using the stubby lever were tricky at first. It didn’t take too long to get the hang of it, but the shifts still weren't ideal.
It's meant to be an improvement over the gearbox used in ForTwo's previous iteration. You'll have to take Mercedes' word for it…
You won't get anywhere in a hurry, either, although, once up to speed, ForTwo is quite nippy. It has a maximum quoted top speed of 145 km/h, which is a touch faster than its predecessor, and it returns a fair4.7 l/100 km from a 38-litre tank.
Also, try to stay out of the wind. There's nothing aerodynamic about ForTwo's design with its short wheelbase, shorter overhangs and slabbed sides. This became especially clear while battling a howling Cape south-easter for use of the steering wheel. The relatively long wheelbase and wide tracks are meant to provide stability, but they were no match forthat gale.
NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) qualities for the test unit - even at low speed - were shocking. Squeaks and rattles permeated the cabin area, and wind noise at cruising speeds was barely tolerable. Seats were also shallow and only suitable for shorter journeys, especially for heavier set individuals.
One big comfort, perhaps, is the ForTwo's safety credentials. Apart from thanking my Maker every time another SUV or double cab switched lanes and narrowly avoided tripping over the Smart, its Euro NCAP rating is actually very fair. Though it has no child safety rating, ForTwo scored four stars for adult occupant safety and two stars for pedestrian safety.
I'm not convinced. This ForTwo may be new, but the novelty of the Smart Car has long worn off and has zero effect on a car that looks so similar to the model it replaces.
It would also require super human resolve to deal with those irksome gearchanges on a daily basis.
And while this car could be described as "cheap" in several ways, it is not so in the monetary way; the ForTwo will set you back a pretty penny.
But that, perhaps, is the beauty of it. This car is not meant to sell inhuge numbers and those who purchase them will likely do so because it allows them to stand out in a crowd of realtors and nabs them the best parking spots.
Parking is a cinch