First Drive: Smart fortwo

The car that rewrote the rulebook 15 years ago is back. Again.

The definition of ‘city car’ was ignored when Smart turned up with a two-seater super-supermini ‘coupe’ that was ideally suited to urban life. It struck a chord with the public, leading to 100,000 of them finding a home in the UK in the years since.

It’s not been an easy ride though. While the go-kart-like handling was always admired, even if outright grip levels weren’t that high, there has never been a kind word said about its go-kart-like ride quality. Harsher words were reserved for the dreadful semi-automatic gearbox, a unit so abysmally dreadful that venturing anywhere outside of the city limits was more pain than pleasure.

Now there’s a new model, and for this Mercedes, Smart’s parents, have partnered with Renault, which means that the fortwo shares a lot of mechanical bits with the Renault Twingo. This has kept development costs down, although the £10,555 price tag suggests otherwise, and freed up resources to make it all a bit smarter.

The input from Mercedes isn’t visible, but you can feel every Euro spent. The front suspension has been replaced with heavily modified components from the Mercedes C-Class, leading to a far smoother, more refined ride, while extra soundproofing keeps the engine noise and outside world at bay.

While there are similarities between the fortwo and the Twingo, the work done in Stuttgart separates the models in to very distinct products, with very different driving characteristics.

If you stick within the city limits then you’ll notice that the car no longer seems to lurch and jump from one bump to the next, instead absorbing imperfections with aplomb, despite its tiny wheelbase. Skittishness has been replaced by zestiness, the fortwo cutting a nimble dash through narrow urban streets.

It’s once you get away from the city and on to some open roads that you see how much the fortwo has grown up. You might think that the famous London taxi-beating turning circle could lead to nervous behaviour on faster corners, but the fortwo shows a level of maturity that you would expect from a larger saloon car, with a composed ride and confident handling. It feels surprisingly well planted.

Of course, it’s no sports car. Trying to eke out the last ounce of performance will lead you disappointed, but you can make progress at far higher speeds than you think would be sensible thanks to the direct steering and a finely balanced chassis. The rear-engine layout helps weight distribution, but with just 71bhp to play with from the 1.0-litre engine there’ll be no tail-out fun or mini-Porsche 911 comparisons. Still, rev the tiny engine hard, enjoy the slick-shifting five-speed gearbox mounted just a few centimetres away from your left hand, and you’re rewarded with a car with an unexpected lightness of touch that is a joy to use.

Being such a small car with tall, straight sides, cross winds can interfere at times, but some clever crosswind-correcting electronic wizardry borrowed from the Mercedes Sprinter van tries hard to keep you on the straight and narrow. The ride can get a tad choppy if bumps arrive in quick succession thanks to that super short wheelbase, but for the most part it’s a genuinely good effort.

It’s still most at home in the city though. At just 2,695mm long you can still pull off the Smart’s favourite party trick; parking nose-in to the kerb. For this third gen model there actually is a nose, a snubby bonnet that hides the crash structures that modern lawmakers demand. This replaces the distinctive wedge of the old model, and also means the cabin has been pushed back a little.

That robs the interior of some space, but the new model is wider than before which frees up some much-needed elbow and shoulder room. The end result is that my driving partner (tall) and me (wide) could sit together in comfort without any issues at all.

There are no issues with the quality of the interior either. The combination interesting surface detailing, including bright fabrics stretched taut across the dashboard, and high-tech toys embedded in the centre stack creates a suitable premium feeling space that sits well with the funky exterior.

It’s well equipped too, with an excellent infotainment system, five airbags, alloy wheels and a multi-function steering wheel standard across the range. Of course, the entry-level model costs some £2,000 more than its Twingo sibling.

For that you get a better car that loses two seats, so is it worth it? On purely financial terms, no baby Smart has ever made sense, and that’s the same here. You’re buying in to an image rather than a car, making the fortwo something of a fashion piece, and that makes it difficult to value.

The fact that it’s now a car transformed from also-ran to something that you could feasibly use every day might just swing the odds in its favour.

Model Tested: Smart fortwo edition #1 71 hp
Price: £13,225
Engine: 1.0-litre petrol
Top speed: 94 mph
0-62 mph: 14.4 seconds
Power: 71 PS (70 bhp)
Torque: 91 Nm (67 ft-lb)
Official fuel economy: 68.9 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 93 g/km
VED Band: A / £0 per year
Car insurance group: 3E
Kerb weight: 880 kg
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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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