Cape Town - The third-generation Smart fortwo and forfour has arrived in South Africa.
The new Smart cars are powered by a 999cc three-cylinder engine, available in two outputs, and three specifications - passion, prime and proxy.
Smart has been around in SA for many years, but its cars failed to make headway among brand-loyal South Africans. The two biggest factors affecting smart sales? Affordability and practicality.
With the local launch of its all-new fortwo and the return of the forfour (four-door, four seats), the automaker hopes to address the shortcomings of its models with a new design, enhanced technology and an improved engine.
Both the Smart fortwo and forfour have improved in leaps and bounds compared to their predecessors. Some of the funky traits of the previous cars (i.e short overhangs) that made them instantly recognisable as smart cars have been retained.
The new models are completely redesigned with flowing curves, unique colour schemes, as well as snazzy-looking, oversized headlights (with LEDs).
Both Smart cars are quite short (2.69m for the fortwo, and 3.49m for the forfour) and are differentiated by two additional doors and as many seats in the forfour.
Read: Next-gen Smart fortwo, forfour in SA: Prices, details
The interior does not reflect the same exuberance as the exterior. The plastics on top of the dashboard and the inside-lining of the doors are covered by mesh.
The standard black plastics along dashboard and around the centre console - while durable - give the interior a sombre feel. Fortunately, buyers can individualise their Smart cars with a range of colour options to breathe life into the cabin.
The new Smart cars are powered by a three-cylinder 999cc engine. Given the two vehicles’ low weight, the 52kW/91Nm motor delivers adequate power to propel the vehicles, although additional mass, in the form of passengers and kit, will see the cars struggle on our roads.
A five-speed manual gearbox does duty in both cars and channels power to the rear wheels - a rarity for a small city car.
Perhaps the most satisfying element of the new powertrain is the noise that’s emitted from the exhaust during spirited driving. There is a raspy, need-to-clear-your-throat sound that entices the senses. If anything, this will motivate any driver to push his/her little Smart into the red line. The downside is that while chasing this sound, fuel consumption will rise dramatically.
Differentiated by handling
Both cars are equipped with McPherson struts and a double wishbone construction. In addition, the front axle relies heavily on elements of the previous Mercedes-Benz C-Class and a revised De Dion rear axle increases spring travel on all four corners. So this should provide the basis for a good chassis, then...
Before departing on the launch drive, the cars had to be manoeuvred out of a very tight parking bay. What was immediately evident was how light the steering is. Turning circles on both cars are incredibly tight (6.95 and 8.95m lock-to-lock, respectively); perfect for driving in the city.
Driving from Cape Town to Stellenbosch (via the Durbanville hills in the Western Cape) provided an opportunity to test the forfour’s dynamics. Picking-up speed is a gradual process, though the supple ride-quality was a pleasant surprise. Its length makes for a more balanced vehicle than the fortwo and overall it delivers a decent, enjoyable, drive.
The forfour can become unstable if you're tackling bends at speed. The car wants its driver to match its abilities – not the other way around.
The fortwo is great within cities and suburbs and while it's able to maintain moderate speed on highways, overtaking needs to be planned well in advance and with generous application of the throttle... all while the exhaust is screaming under your derriere.
The fortwo is at home navigating Cape Town’s narrow streets and finding parking is a breeze due to its compact dimensions and superb steering.
Practicality and features
Depending on spec, both cars are equipped with a fair amount of tech. Features such as crosswind assist, active seat belt-tensioners and cruise control (with a limiter) are standard, while forward collision warning and lane-keep assist are some of the available options.
For the media-orientated buyer there is the option of a touch-screen multimedia system that can integrate smartphones and provide real-time navigation. A JBL sound system sees to your acoustic needs and offers eight speakers in the fortwo, and twelve in the forfour.
What is a bit of an irritation is the voice control system. Despite numerous attempts, it failed to recognise commands, uttering in a robotic voice, 'I do not seem to understand what you are saying'. Perhaps it's my South African accent, perhaps I should've brushed-up on German.
Smart believes its models are practical city cars, but having experienced both it's hard to justify the fortwo as a "practical" choice. Boot space is limited, there's no spare wheel, its cabin is uncomfortable for large individuals, minor storage compartments... Not really practical, then.
The forfour, however, is surprisingly spacious. Its boot is on the small side (185 litres), but with the rear seats folded down, total storage space expands to 975 litres. For first-time buyers seeking a practical city car to suit a family of four, the new forfour could be for you. Plus, the bigger forfour boasts with rear doors that can open by as much as 85 degrees!
Expanding the range in 2016
In July 2016, the smart range will see the addition of a turbocharged, automatic forfour that produces 66kW. Another model that is being considered for South Africa is a battery-powered Smart. Mercedes-Benz is conducting tests to establish its local viability, but chances are good that it will join the range.
Later in 2016, a high-performance Brabus version will make its appearance. The 999cc will see its power increase to 88kW and should provide a lively ride and a lot more fun behind the wheel.
Mercedes-Benz is pitting its new smart cars against the likes of the Datsun Go! and Fiat 500 - a niche market within a segment dominated by the Volkswagen Polo and Ford Fiesta. The smart cars have the upper-hand over its direct rivals thanks to the backing of Mercedes-Benz, improved tech and increased space, but it is difficult to see why consumers would turn away from more popular (read: practical) vehicles such as the Polo and Fiesta. As SA's new car market continues to decline, practicality wins over style and fashion.
The cars will find traction among certain buyers in SA, but whether it will be able to take the fight to more established contenders remains to be seen.
All smart models are sold with a three-years or 60 000km service plan
smart fortwo 52kW manual transmission:
base - R174 900
passion - R194 400
prime - R203 400
proxy - R207 400
smart fourfour 52kW manual transmission:
base - R179 900
passion - R199 400
prime - R210 900
proxy - R212 400
smart fourfour 66kW automatic transmission: (from July 2016)
base - R210 400
passion- R229 900
prime - R241 400
proxy - R242 900