Mercedes-Benz has the last one ever made in its museum, Gordon Murray used one as his daily driver – and we picked it as one of the best sub-£10k investment cars for 2022. Three blue-chip recommendations for a car that its manufacturer dropped like a hot potato after just two years and which for most remains a curiosity in a corner of the sportscar market. So just what is the appeal of the Smart Roadster?
Is the Smart Roadster the sportscar to buy in 2022?
Buy one and find out was the answer to that, so we did. Six months in we’re sold on it in ways which we – and, it is true to say, most people – weren’t 18 years ago when the tiny two-seat sportscar first came out. The car’s Lilliputian dimensions, perceived fragility, oft-criticised automatic gearbox and reputation for leaks and electrical gremlins ensured it never made its third birthday as a new car. Warranty claims made it just too expensive to go on making it.
But today? Bring it on! The Smart Roadster’s time has come, and the good news is there are now plenty of cars that have been cherished by sympathetic owners who have long since ensured that the problems which dogged it when new are now well behind it.
The enticing result is that for a third of the £18k new price 18 years ago you can enjoy a brilliant example of one of the most well-resolved cars on the road. In its design and its engineering, the Roadster represents inspired form-following-function. No wonder Mercedes is so proud of it and the designer of the McLaren F1 is such a fan.
Coupe or convertible?
Most agree the Roadster to have, is the Coupe version, like Gordon’s and like the one I bought in the summer. The name is an oxymoron but with its twin removable roof panels and glassed-in rear section with lift-up tailgate it strikes a decent balance between roadster and coupe.
The Roadster convertible, the cheaper of the two, gets a soft top and a flat rear deck so has less luggage room but more wind in the hair (and opportunities for leaks). The convertible is the classic open two-seater alongside the more avant-garde coupe which has a contemporary look even today.
The styling might differ but otherwise, the cars are the same: 3.4m long (that’s half a metre shorter than a Mazda MX-5); a wheel-at-each-corner stretched Smart ForTwo platform, and Smart’s exposed “Tridion” steel safety cell with built-in rollover hoop.
The bolt-on body panels are plastic and the styling dominated by extravagantly bulbous arches over the 15-inch rims. There’s a big smiley face front-end styling and tucked away between the back wheels, a familiar Smart power unit: an all-alloy 698cc turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine. Its 81PS (60kW) is sent to the back wheels via a six-speed automated manual transmission.
It’s dinky everywhere then, including weight – around 800kg – which means that it’s as nippy as anything. But not by any conventional yardstick: 0-62mph is officially 11 seconds.
Flat-out or nothing
Eleven seconds is dishearteningly slow but don’t be put off. This is one of those rare cars these days which you relish for being able to drive more or less flat-out as a matter of routine, without putting your licence in too much risk. As much fun as having 500PS under your right foot? In the real world, yes.
There’s not much torque but the thrummy three-pot is quite happy revving its 6,000rpm heart out, even in a 2004 car with 65,000 miles up. With six close-spaced ratios – accessed in my car by shift paddles on the steering wheel (optional when new) – the car feels eager as long as you let it rev. In fact it’s brisk enough to embarrass much more powerful cars on the right sort of road (twisty back roads ideally). The Brabus version with another 20PS (15kW) is quicker but I have never seen the need for it.
The gearbox is a single-clutch electro-hydraulic automated manual and with the engine’s meagre torque and boosty nature it has its work cut out. No surprise then that it has little in common with the rapid-fire precision of one of today’s double-clutch autos. But there’s still fun to be had using the paddles.
You can leave the Smart in auto mode (we do, most of the time) which is when upchanges can be so slow to go through it’s like the brakes have been put on between ratios. But a pre-emptive lift is all you need to keep progress smooth. It’s not difficult.
The Roadster is able to carry its speed more or less wherever the road goes. Rare are cars where you have to lift off, let alone brake, so little for corners.
Many of the prerequisites for kart-like handling are present here, and so it proves. It’s agile and flat through the twisty stuff with, relatively speaking, masses of pure mechanical grip. Decent seat-of-the-pants feel too. It will tighten its line benignly if you lift off but this is not a car to flick the tail out, MX-5 style. Its normal handling state is far too neutral for that.
It’s still fun to chuck around without in any way feeling nervy at speed. That’s achieved in part thanks to an oversized steering wheel and surprisingly low-geared steering. I’d like an inch out of the wheel diameter and a quarter turn out of the lock, even at the expense of a dartier feel. A more positive on-centre feel wouldn’t go amiss either. Dynamically, they are my only whinges.
It’ll do 85mph on the motorway if needs must but the radio struggles to drown out the wind noise and clearly this is not its preferred environment. Trucks in adjacent lanes loom up like supertankers viewed from a dinghy.
The ride at motorway speeds is good though, taut and float-free. The pay-off is on lumpy back roads at low speeds. Suspension travel might be precisely controlled but there’s so little of it that potholes are definitely worth steering around.
The Roadster Coupe is a better car with its glass roof panels… off. Yes, this car feels stronger with its top off. With the panels in place bad roads result in plenty of rattles and creaks from above, perhaps not helped in my car by 18 years of use. Put the panels in the rear (they store snugly on polystyrene formers) and the car’s surprisingly good structural rigidity is evident. There is not one shimmy of scuttle shake.
Living with a Smart Roadster
A strong feeling structure is just one way the Smart Roadster defies its diminutive size and lowly price point. You expect it to be cramped; it’s not (and I’m a good few inches over 6ft). You expect the seats to be small and flat; they are in fact large with really well shaped backrests. You expect a narrow footwell with awkward pedals; nope, plenty of room for size 11s.
And you expect minimal luggage space but, here’s a surprise, there are boots front and back and actually more luggage space than a Mazda MX-5 offers. You also expect a limited touring range but 400 miles on a 35-litre tankful is possible, and to save you working it out that’s 51mpg. Or 50 quid for a tankful, even for the 99-octane stuff that I treat it to. It’s not electric, but it’s as environmentally friendly as sportscars come.
All these things make living with a used, 18-year-old Smart Roadster surprisingly undemanding, even when using the car in all weathers every day as we are. It’s modern enough to come with features we take for granted today – ESP and anti-lock brakes (despite rear drums!), good heating and demisting, effective air-con, remote central locking, decent headlights, airbags – but not so modern you get things like touchscreens and haptic nonsense that would spoil it. There are real knobs here and they are entirely intuitive and mostly a finger flick away.
What you cannot take for granted is it weatherproofing. Rain can get in, even in the better sealed Coupe. Unless you keep the car inside when it rains, be ready to keep the complex arrangement of gutters, channels and seals clear of muck so water drains off somewhere other than into the car. Having said that, get a good car and you shouldn’t have a problem.
Finding a good one
Evidence of water ingress around door cards, roof catches and under carpets is the first thing to look for; water can get into the electrics which is when things can get expensive to fix. The cars are well cared for these days and it’s not difficult to find one with an unmarked body and matching tyres. The tailgate hinge covers corrode but you can get new ones. The rear glass can go opaque but it polishes up. Make sure any car you look at has the formers in the boot to securely store the roof panels.
The original spec wheels (15s on base models) and tyres are best. Don’t be hung up on a Brabus version, they are more powerful but cost more and come with their own problems (mainly to do with lower ride height and bigger wheels). Do get a Roadster with the optional steering wheel gear paddles. Cars with the luxury pack come with heated seats; they work with typical Mercedes efficiency.
Obviously, some stamps in the service book are good, particularly evidence of regular oil changes. Typically for a Mercedes engine, cam timing is by chain not a belt so shouldn’t wear out any time soon – and you see these cars going strong with impressive six-figure mileages.
Most important, buy from someone who knows what they are dealing with. Someone like Geoff Hall of G&M Motors in Horsham who found me my Roadster (and who always has a selection available, alongside his other speciality of repurposed electric milk floats!). Someone like Geoff will be able to tell the difference between a good and not so good car, who knows where to get the parts and has the people who can service or fix a car on speed dial. Smart or Mercedes dealers? Don’t need ’em.
And my car? It’s a 2004 Champagne Coupe without a mark on it and 65,000 miles up, and which cost £5,600. You can spend half that or twice that but I reckon circa £5k is all you need to pay. In six months it has met its brief as a modern but characterful sportscar perfect for zapping around West Sussex lanes. I like it more each time I drive it. The ultimate affordable modern-classic sportscar? By a mile…
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