The sight of a phalanx of Smart ForTwos and ForFours lined-up neatly outside Gateshead’s superb Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art looked surprisingly appealing. The idea of being here is to establish if the new offerings from Smart can give the kind of rear-engined thrills associated with far more expensive machinery. This should be fun.
Certainly, the acquisition of either example of Smart wouldn’t cause your accountant to interrupt their holiday, ask you what the hell you were doing and suggest that you hold-off on the annual family holiday for a few years. Prices start at £11,565 for the most modest ‘Passion’ spec ForTwo, rising to £14,260 for a top-line ‘Edition #1’ version of the ForFour. Not too expensive to buy then, but can they be a laugh to drive?
Climbing in to the ForFour a few things struck us immediately. Firstly, the closing of the door, which shuts with a satisfying ‘whump’ as opposed to the ‘clunk’ or yore. Secondly, the dashboard where oblong sliders have replaced the old knobs is actually a nice thing to sit behind. It’s all ‘Apple store’ materials. Back lit. Soft to touch. Thirdly, what’s this; a clutch pedal?! Yes, it will come as good news to owners of older Smart cars that a five-speed manual with clutch is now standard equipment, with a new-and-improved automatic coming along for Q2. The search for rear-engined thrills is looking good …
Joining the roads in a ForFour reveals another pleasant surprise. The three-cylinder engines, which are shared with the Renault Twingo, emit quite a pleasing ‘thrumm’, although the joy at discovering this is tempered by the fact that the gearing is very tall (in order to help achieve good fuel figures), which means that accessing what little power the car has (70bhp in this instance) requires a lot of gear changing.
On the open road it’s soon clear that 70bhp simply isn’t enough for the larger of the two new Smarts. In a multi-lane scenario where you want to overtake, say, a slower goods vehicle, there isn’t enough acceleration to join the faster lane… at least not without causing the cars behind you to have to slow down to avoid an incident.
Further along our route we leave the big A-roads and head across country to the beautiful village of Yarm near Stockton-on-Tees. On paper, the ForFour was the one to go for if a cross-country ‘brisk canter’ was on the cards, with the longer wheelbase likely to deliver less-fidgety handling. It didn’t turnout that way though. The ride felt very good with minimal roll and decent steering feel, but somehow it just didn’t deliver much fizz despite the manual gearbox and pleasant-sounding motor.
Having reached Yarm, there was time for a sandwich before swapping the ForFour for a ForTwo. Same engine, same gearbox… in fact just about same everything except for the wheelbase; both cars being based on the Renault Twingo.
On the road, however, things aren’t what we expected. The 70bhp motor, which felt like it had its hands full in the ForFour, actually feels quite punchy in the ForTwo. The handling feels much more sharp and capable and with no apparent compromise in ride comfort, which is still notably better than the Smart’s first incarnation.
Within a few miles we’re having genuine fun with the ForTwo. There’s no twitchyness to the handling, which you might expect of a car whose wheelbase is barely longer than its doors. No, this is real fun; corner hard and it grips far better than you’d expect and is very settled. Push harder and eventually the front will gradually lose grip. Very safe, and besides there isn’t really enough power available to start giving it a bit of the old Ari Vatanen in the twisty stuff. At higher speeds the steering becomes a tad light due to all the weight on the rear axle, but that added to the fun for us.
Of course, the whole drivetrain layout is the way it is for practical reasons; not to please impecunious road racers lusting after more expensive cars with the engine out-back. But nevertheless, the smaller of the Smarts especially is a hoot to drive. Sadly on the day the bigger 90bhp version wasn’t available, which is a real shame because that could be quite a lively car. It’s more powerful yes, but develops much more torque and lower in the rev range, and this is what could see it cause problems for more powerful cars trying to shake its appearance from the mirrors.
There are cheaper ways to transport two – or even five – people, but that’s not what the Smart is for, strictly speaking. For example, iPhone owners are forever being told that there are other phones which can do more for less. But when it comes to deciding which one most people actually want, it’s been the best-seller for the past four years …