Click image to enlarge
Story and photos by Paul Williams
As the time approaches for the smart’s Canadian introduction (October, 2004), you have to wonder whether 1,000, 2,000, or 10,000 of these little vehicles will be enough for our market.
Honestly, you cannot stand next to a smart without attracting a half-dozen fascinated passers-by, such is their interest in this vehicle. Add a half-hour to get out of a parking lot, or sometimes even your driveway. Wanna meet a girl? Wanna meet a guy? Wanna make new friends? Believe me, this’ll beat any puppy.
Smart cars are not new; only new to North America. They were originally developed as a joint venture between the Swiss watch company, Swatch, and car-maker Mercedes-Benz (the double entrendre name “smart” is derived from “s” for Swatch, “m” for Mercedes, plus “art”). After Swatch pulled out, smart became a 100 per cent owned subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler. The company is now a division of the Mercedes Car Group, along with Mercedes-Benz and the ultra-luxury Maybach.
So the car’s not a Mercedes, just so you know. It’s a smart (spelled officially with a small “s”) that will be sold through Mercedes-Benz dealerships. Consequently, don’t expect Mercedes luxury and doors that close with a thunk in a smart. Yes, it’s well-built, and it features snappy Jetson’s styling, but its (estimated) $16,000 starting price (for the coupe) is commensurate with the level of product you’re buying.
However, the intangibles – the genuinely eye-popping look, the clever technology, the BOLD statement you’ll make – are worth whatever you’re willing to pay, I guess.
Add a convertible top (for about $5,000), and you pretty much cause a sensation.
The canvas roof of the cabriolet fully retracts; creating a large sunroof that can be operated while the car’s in motion or at a standstill. If you want the full convertible, you stop the car, get out and remove the two side roof rails (these store behind the seat). This permits the top to fully unlatch from the B-pillars and drop, targa-style, below the line of sight from your rear-view mirror.
Click image to enlarge
It has a soft plastic rear window (no defroster, therefore), that folds along with the top.
From inside the car with roof lowered, it feels like you’re simply driving a small rag-top. But check the stunned look of pedestrians as you drive by, and the be-mused expressions of other motorists, to get some idea of the impression you’re making. Most people love it, and the rest scratch their heads.
Behind the seats and below the floor in the cargo area is the smart’s 800-c.c., three-cylinder common-rail diesel diesel engine. It makes 40.2-horsepower at 4,200 r.p.m., and 73.8 lb.-ft torque at 1,800-2,800 r.p.m.
Although this may not seem like a lot of power, the smart fortwo weighs only 730-kilograms, and is about two-thirds the weight of a typical compact car. Its maximum payload is 260-kg, and top speed is electronically limited to 135 km/h.
Standard wheel size is 15″ (bigger than on some compact cars), and the smart’s front/rear track is an unexpectedly wide 1,285/1,354 mm, which contributes to its stability when cornering.
Available in three ascending levels of trim called pure, pulse and passion, standard and optional equipment includes air conditioning, compact disc player, power windows, remote keyless entry, rear wiper and a sunroof. Everything inside the car is full-size (if occasionally whimsical in design), but it’s externally that the
smart’s dimensions dramatically diverge from the norm.
The vehicle is 2,500 mm in length, 1,515 mm wide and 1,549 tall. In comparison, the (new) Mini Cooper, formerly the smallest vehicle sold in North America, is 3,626 mm long, 1,688 mm wide and 1,408 mm tall.
It is, as many people are quick to inform you with a grin on their face, “half a car.”
On the road the smart cabriolet is perfectly effective as a short-haul commuter, with the top up or down, or as a runabout to pick up groceries, attend meetings, and the like. On the highway, it’ll scoot along without fuss, but its heavily sprung accelerator pushes back on your foot, often causing you to unintentionally decelerate over time. There’s no cruise control (at least, there wasn’t on both smarts that I drove) and that would help.
The six-speed transmission (Softip is the manual and “automatic” version; Softouch is the manual only) is not as quick as a manual or conventional automatic through the gears, and the automatic mode causes the smart to dive and launch abruptly as it shifts from one gear to the next (BMW’s sequential manual gearbox does this as well). Consequently, I preferred the manual mode, which shifts to the gear you want more quickly and smoothly.
Having driven smarts on the highway from Ottawa to Montreal and back (400-km return, at a cost of $5.00 one-way, I should point out), I can attest that they’ll do this kind of trip without problem, but as a regular highway-driver, frankly, I’d prefer something else.
Situate a smart behind a large truck or a bus, and it gets positively hinky on you, as the front wheels lift and the vehicle gets pushed around in the turbulent air. Other small vehicles are prone to this, but not to the same extent.
No, it’s an urban dweller, first and foremost.
Of primary importance to consumers, especially in such a small vehicle, is safety. Even though vehicles have downsized over the years, a collision with a full-sized
sports utility vehicle would suggest particular peril for a smart’s occupants. Perhaps surprisingly, the smart has excelled in crash tests (both in-house and independent).
Tests have included a frontal crash at 65 km/h against a deformable barrier, rear-end crash at 55 km/h, side crash at 50 km/h and car-to-car crashes (head-on and offset) between the smart and an upper standard-size car (Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class). According to the Mercedes Car Group, in more than 50 crash tests, the smart provided greater occupant safety than in other small cars.
In addition to the strong, steel, safety cell, that forms the structural foundation of the smart, you get standard safety belt pre-tensioners, driver and passenger airbags and a range of sophisticated electronic aids, including anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, traction control, hydraulic brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.
It’s no toy, that’s for sure.
Attached to the steel frame are plastic body panels that are mainly decorative. In fact, they’re exchangeable and recyclable. After a while, a smart owner can decide to change the vehicle’s colour by simply changing these panels.
Perhaps ideal for urban buyers who require a vehicle for short trips, the smart is something of a “personal transportation device.” If its time has come, expect to see more manufacturers introducing micro cars to our market.
But don’t forget, for $16,000 (let alone $21,000 for the cabriolet) you can buy a very well equipped Toyota Echo Hatch, or even a base Mazda3 sedan. They won’t have the same cachet, I grant you, but if you’re thinking the smart’s a bargain, these are some comparably-priced options. The smart cabriolet will be the cheapest convertible on the road, however.
For the 2005 model year, 1000 Smarts were slated for Canada. Apparently these have already been pre-ordered (approximately 60% cabriolets, 40% coupes). Mercedes-Benz Canada is trying to get more.