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We drive the Smart Roadster!

2003-09-09 07:46

John Oxley

Wheels24 managing editor John Oxley next to one of the sporty Smarts

Wheels24 was in Germany for the Frankfurt Motor Show, and we took the opportunity to spend a day with two versions of the tiny sports car, driving on an excellent mixture of roads including the autobahn, where we mixed it with the hottest cars, as well as sometimes tight, sometimes sweeping rural roads close to Bavaria.

The verdict: Close to a go-kart in terms of handling, punchy as a sports car needs to be, and the most fun we have had the right side of R200 000!

Yes, that's the sort of money we're talking here, with the lowest-priced of our Smart duo, the 60 kW Roadster, tipping the money scales at under R150 000 in Germany - including VAT - while the better-equipped Roadster Coupe can be had for the equivalent of R162 000.

Options would boost the price according to your wants - which could include satellite navigation and F1-type paddle gear changing - but the fact is that the baseline versions in Germany are priced for affordability.

The Smart Roadster is NOT a squashed-down version of the Smart city car, although it does use the same basic principle of a 700 cm3 three-cylinder turbocharged engine fitted behind the seats and driving the rear wheels.

Unique model

Instead, it is a model in its own right, with its own unique body styling, its own suspension, and on the top two models, a lot more power than the city car has. It shares only 35% of its parts with the city car.

What are we talking here? Well, 60 kW doesn't sound much. But when you apply it to a car that weighs only 790 kg, it translates into scintillating acceleration and easy overtaking power.

At first sight the roadster looks bigger than it is, with superb styling that is modern, chic, and possesses all the styling cues necessary in a sports car, such as a low swooping bonnet line, wide wheel arches, and fat takkies!

The car that immediately springs to mind is the "Frogeye" Austin Healey Sprite, and in fact the Smart Roadster follows very much on the dimensions of the car that evolved from the Sprite, the MG Midget.

Once inside you sit very comfortably, not quite wedged in, but in cosy proximity to the rest of the cockpit. Getting in is no more difficult than with any sports car - although you do have to duck your head under the (removeable) side rails.

Larger men might find difficulty getting their legs under the steering wheel, but neither I (with a full tummy) nor DaimlerChrysler SA's six-footer PR boss, had any problems.

At 3 427 mm long it's not as small as Daihatsu's little Copen sports car, nor as shoulder-rubbing cosy as a Smart city car, although it IS smaller than a Toyota MR2 or Mazda MX5.

Open road

On the open road the Roadster immediately proves it's no sluggard, with acceleration levels of the order of 11.5 seconds - not quite as quick as an MX5, but not far off.

Part of the reason for this is that the softouch 6-speed semi-automatic gearbox is a slow upshifter - although the coupe, which had the optional paddles, was much quicker - and that the little engine seems to lose oomph at the top end of the rev range.

Lower down, though, it has stacks of grunt, accompanied by the most delicious engine sounds just behind your head. Compare it to the sound of an F1 car as heard through the on-board camera unit, but accompanied by a discreet whistle as the turbo wastegate dumps boost just before you change gears.

Nipping in and out of the traffic is easy, but the other cars are overwhelming. You look in your rearview mirror and see what appears to be a hulking great 4x4 looming up - only to discover it's nothing more sinister than a family station wagon.

Trucks and buses? Just get away from them before they inadvertently squash you?

That's the feeling, but the reality is that other road users treat the car with respect, for it LOOKS the business, not least because of its bright trim and interchangeable body panels.


Even the baseline models come equipped with ESP electronic stability control, as well as ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, so it's a great stopper, too, and virtually impossible to unsettle.

That said we did get a bit of tailout at one point before the electronics kicked in to put a stop to that nonsense. Bother!

We didn't have time to do serious testing in controlled conditions, where we could have switched off the ESP and tried our hand at real tail-out stuff, but the car gives every indication it will be more than willing to go along with that.

Top speed is claimed at 180 km/h, and we saw that indicated on the autobahn several times, with two people aboard.

Fuel economy? Well, it's a Smart, isn't it? Expect between 5 and 6 litres/100 km overall, with lots of hard driving in that mix.

As mentioned right at the beginning, there are two versions of the Smart Roadster.

The Roadster itself comes as standard with an electric roof that folds down like a roller blind out of the driver's rearview line of sight, just below the fixed upright rear window.

It opens and closes quickly, and at the push of a button, and doesn't suffer the inadequacies of a folding soft-top in that it can be opened and closed on the move.

However, if you take off the side rails to give a complete al fresco feeling, these have to be replaced before the roof can be closed.

Sunshine motoring

Similarly, the coupe comes with two lightweight removeable hard roof panels which are cleverly stowed behind the rear seats if you want sunshine motoring.

The rails come off, too - or you can just opt for the electric soft roof, at around R8 000 extra.

As with many German car you can equip the Smart Roadster to suit your own needs (and pockets).

I preferred the optional 205/45 R16 tyres and wider wheels over the standard 205/50 R15s fitted as standard on the coupe, as these gave a better ride, and well, look nicer!

In all, an experience I'll never forget. Great sound, great looks, and excellent value for money (though the glovebox is all but useless).

Oh, and there's room to carry a laptop AND some luggage in the front boot, while the coupe has even more space.

The good news is that the ladies will have to opt for minimum clothing if you decide to go away for a long weekend. Now THERE'S a thought!

South Africa? DaimlerChrysler SA has already indicated it WILL be coming here, but the jury is still out on its price, and when.

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