Car Test   R0328
March 2003
First Drive Smart City Coupe
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One of our testers once owned a BMW Isetta. Bubble cars may now seem a joke, but one great virtue that this one possessed was easy parking – you simply drove straight at the kerb and stepped out; any gap a metre wider than the Isetta would do!
   When we recently spent a day out with Smart’s latest City-coupé, we realised that nowadays this little 2.5-metre-long piece of chic is the nearest any city-user can get to such down-to-earth practicality.
   The Roaster we sampled recently, with its electric folding hood and tweaked engine is towards the top end (in price and power) of the recently revised Smart line-up. This test report examines the quite extensive revisions to the basic concept, launched in 1998.
   First the engines: still rear-mounted, turbocharged, three-cylinder units driving the rear wheels via a six-speed synchromesh gearbox that has no clutch pedal – just a sequential (to and fro) gear – selector that actuates electronic shifts.
   However, all versions now share a 599cc engine capacity, with 50 or 61bhp, according to trim designation. The Roadster’s fully automatic gearshifting (‘Soft-touch’) is standard on the top (Passion) 61bhp version and an optional extra on the others.
   Other important changes incorporated as standard, even on the cheapest (Pure) version, include electronic cornering stability control, as well as ABS that uses the same wheel sensors; this makes it feasible to use wider tyres.
   Starting the Smart is made a bit fiddly by the safety interlock arrangements, but once fired-up, the eager but audible little engine gets the Smart underway very smoothly. The sequential manual shifts, on the move, were slicker and smoother on one of the two cars we drove, than on the other. Neither had the auto-shift facility, but our experience of this sort of technology, in other cars, hasn’t lead us to hope that upshifts in the lower ratios will be any better. Changing down is much cleverer, however, and the big advantage of this ‘auto on the cheap’ is that it barely affects mpg or acceleration, compared with a conventional manual gearbox.
   Smart is touting a 60mpg 'combined' figure (in the official tests), improving to 70 in the out-of-town test cycle. If it’s true, that represents the kind of economy we’ve achieved (in our AA metered tests) on the best small diesel cars, such as the Lupo/Arosa and Citroen C3.
   They will still out-accelerate even the 61bhp Smart, as well, but this little car makes up by brimming with individuality and a cheeky willingness to rev its socks off one minute, then cruise with remarkable, long-legged langour in its top slot. (Three-cylinder engines, because they fire 25 per cent less often, have the knack of seeming to run slower than they really are.)
   With a surprisingly comfortable driving position as well, this Smart would be a good longer-distance proposition for two, if they travel light, except for the still-agitated ride, which also translates into directional nervousness over bumps.
   On smooth roads, it corners well enough now, and the manual steering’s weight feels fine at speed. Around town, it gets heavier, despite four turns between locks and you have to flay your arms on tighter corners. Unfortunately, the power steering option retains the same gearing, so it’s a missed opportunity to sharpen up its responses; the tight turning circle is a great asset, however.
   Our only other serious grouse is that the engine feels too vibrant, when asked to pull from low revs – it doesn’t really smooth out until 2000rpm, yet better fuel economy is always achieved by keeping the revs down, of course. Frustrating.
  considering size, price and rivals
You have to admire Smart for daring to be different. Yet a cold, dispassionate appraisal reveals that the City-coupe has a limited appeal and versatility, compared with some entry-level hatchbacks of a more conventional (boring?) nature. This is a useful little charmer, but you’ll buy it with your heart rather than your head.

body mid-priced two-seater City car, Roadster and Coupé   trim levels Pure, Pulse, Passion
engines petrol: 3 cylinder/0.7 litre/50 or 61bhp
diesel: none
  drive six-speed clutchless sequential manual (auto shift optional); rear-wheel drive
notable features indicator 3-pulse, lane-change function; hazard flashers deploy with airbags, paddle-shift steering wheel gearchanging, cruise control with speed limiter; air-con on dearest version, replaceable body panels, electric glass sunroof

  easy to park/garage?
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