Exposure to a Performance Car review of the Lamborghini Countach 5000QV at an impressionable age set Dan Trent on course for a life-long obsession with cars. As editor of PistonHeads.com he’s got direct access to a classifieds repository of over 100,000 such vehicles to browse day in, day out. Temptation is never far away. He’s still some way off that Countach though.
Even rental guys hate the Smart Roadster. I’d hired one with my brother, taking advantage of the fact the car desk at Frankfurt Hahn airport was doing them for 80 euros for a whole weekend. We’d enjoyed it at, cough, a nearby racetrack that may or may not be available for ‘tourist drives’ on occasion and it was a little worse for the experience. Rental guy made his feelings clear about how bothered he was. ‘Smart? Ein scheisse auto,’ he sighed wearily, seemingly disappointed we hadn’t done the job properly and left it a smouldering heap somewhere behind the Armco.
I still don’t quite understand how the Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe bombed so spectacularly. Many will blame the gearbox, an automated manual with changes ponderous enough to make you wonder if you were going to grind to a halt mid-shift, others some occasionally catastrophic reliability problems relating (but not limited) to leaks and fried electric bits.
You’d have to hope by now natural selection will have weeded out the wrong ‘uns. Leaving that gearbox. Look, it’s not as bad as everyone tells you. At least, not if you’re willing to work with it. Unfortunately we’re now all used to slick-shifting dual-clutch transmissions in everything from Polos to McLarens. The Smart’s is an old-school single-clutch automated gearbox that needs to be driven like a manual minus a clutch pedal. Don’t get me wrong. If it had a proper stickshift it’d be brilliant. But the fact it needs a bit of thought to operate properly is the next best thing.
Right, that’s the gearbox disclaimer out of the way. Can we concentrate on the good stuff now?
The Smart Roadster – especially in glassbacked Roadster Coupe form – is one of the great missed opportunities of recent years. A tiny sub-tonne sports car powered by a compact, boosty turbocharged engine with a specific output of up to 143bhp (145PS) per litre – what’s not to like? Bear in mind the much vaunted new Porsche 718 Boxster S makes 138bhp (140PS) per litre from its cutting edge four-cylinder turbo and you get an idea of why there’s more to the decade-old Smart than many would think. And when I say sub-tonne I mean sub-tonne – 840kg plus driver is at around 100kg less than a Lotus Elise or Alfa Romeo 4C.
You could go lighter with a Caterham or suchlike but the Smart has stuff like a roof, doors, boot and other creature comforts. It’s a modern car too, with crumple zones, airbags and the rest. I’ve done a lot of miles in these things and they’re perfectly civilised on long runs and a right hoot when the roads get twisty and narrow. They’re not fast by the numbers but, frankly, it’s the numbers that get you into trouble. Not convinced? Some bloke called Gordon Murray http://www.evo.co.uk/smart/roadster/7500/smart-roadster-brabus was a fan. Seemingly he even agrees with me on the gearbox.
Heart says I should put my money where my mouth is and try and dig out the super basic, steel-wheeled ‘Light’ version like the one I hired from that grumpy man in Frankfurt. Gordon would approve I think. This £4K one is close enough and I like the lairy interior’s contrast with the grey/black exterior. Head says the pull of the Brabus version‘s 25 per cent horsepower boost to a heady 97bhp (101PS) and its marginally improved shift, more aggressive looks and fancy trimmings are too good to resist. OK, it’s another couple of grand. But if – or, I hope, when – the world wakes up to these things I reckon it would be the one to have.