Brabus gives the new smart Fortwo a shot in the arm
Over the years, the smart Fortwo has become a phenomenon, with a strong enthusiast following all over the world, and smart clubs popping up in China now as well as in European countries.
Apparently, 36 cities in the world including Beijing and Shanghai have really taken to the smart Fortwo due to its high quality and ease of parking, and one of the first European cities to embrace the original smart 450 was Rome, which has chronic parking problems.
An interesting statistic gleaned from one of the engineers is that to date 120,000 smart Fortwo cars of all three generations have been sold there, which equates to a saving of around 150km of parking space when compared to normal cars!
After a sluggish start, the smart Fortwo has gained momentum all over the world, and the practical new smart Fortwo and Forfour range is doing well. Sales of the new cars were up 18% worldwide in the first half of 2016, with the two-seater Fortwo accounting for 23% of overall volume.
Within that growth pattern, there has been considerable buyer impetus in the UK, Spain and the Asia Pacific region, with sales increased by 53%, 45% and 40% respectively across an international dealer network that expanded 10% through 2014 and 2015.
Three generations on the smart Fortwo Cabriolet remains the only open-top car in the city car segment, and we recently had the opportunity to drive the new 109hp Brabus version, which made its debut at Auto Beijing back in April. A track was also provided so we could put the hardtop version through its paces in a safe environment, and prove to ourselves just how well it goes, steers and stops.
For anyone who has driven the original smart 450 of 1998, and the 451 model that followed in 2006, the third generation 453 launched in 2014 is a revelation in terms of ride and handling.
The fundamental reason why the first two generations of two-seater smart had a rather sudden ride goes back to the genesis of the marque. The original 450 was designed with a transverse leaf spring in front, a configuration that requires its two ends to be rigidly located with no fore-aft movement.
When the car adopted its front coil spring arrangement in 2001, the lower suspension arms remained unchanged, and the absence of fore-aft ‘give’ using rubber bushings as on the front suspension arms of other cars remained the root of its uncompromising ride quality. As the chassis of the 451 was an update of this platform, any improvements could thus only be incremental.
The 453 chassis, shared with the latest Renault Twingo, started with a clean sheet of paper, and its independent coil sprung front end is a conventional design with the requisite amount of give in its lower arm bushings. Thus, when driving the 453 for the first time, a 450 or 451 driver instinctively braces for impact when approaching a manhole cover or small speed bump, but the expected thump never comes.
As this new level of sophistication was a vital part of its makeup as a premium-priced city car featuring an amazingly small turning circle, Brabus was determined to compromise it as little as possible in their transformation of the Fortwo into a pocket rocket.
Speaking with Christoph Schulenburg, Head of Testing for the smart development team, I learned that the Brabus chassis setup uses uprated springs with a 10mm lower ride height in conjunction with the stock dampers. These springs are sourced from Allevard in the UK, while the dampers are from KYB in Japan.
With larger rear wheels and tyres providing more traction, the front anti-roll bar is beefed up to balance out the elevated levels of handling and grip. In terms of objective numbers, the maximum roll angle in bends is reduced by 10%, which improves the cars overall composure on a wide variety of roads.
The steering ratio is unchanged, but the wider rubber makes steering effort a bit higher, a good thing for driving enthusiasts. Over and above that the supporting bushes for the engine and gearbox are uprated to handle the greater power and torque loadings.
Acknowledging that not even enthusiasts sometimes need space for four people, Brabus versions of the Fortwo and Forfour models share the same rear-mounted 109hp version of the turbocharged 898cc three-cylinder DOHC motor, mated to a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
A modified intake brings in more fresh air, while at the other side the Brabus sports exhaust provides 10% more volume and lower backpressure. Fuel rail pressure is up, with a high-flow fuel pump delivering the extra juice, and Turbo boost pressure is raised from 1.2 to 1.8 bar.
With the ECU remapped to make full use of the new hardware, the enhanced motor develops an additional 18hp and 40Nm of torque, and the resulting 109hp and 170Nm would have been warm hatch numbers not that long ago.
Against the stopwatch, the Brabus Fortwo’s 9.5 sec 0-100km/h time and 165km/h top speed are nothing to write home about but make the car rapid enough to easily keep up with cut and thrust traffic.
While the old manumatic transmission responded well to heel and toe downshifts as well as partially lifting the throttle to speed up and smoothen out upshifts, these advanced techniques were admittedly beyond the skill set of the bulk of smart owners.
The Brabus tweaked dual clutch gearbox on the latest cars is responsive and rapid in its shifting action, with none of the hesitation and jerkiness that the old clutchless manual was so derided for. It even has a Launch Control function for traffic light GPs if you are so inclined, and works fine when you are not in the mood to be interactive and simply leave it in Auto mode.
As you would expect the Brabus wheel and tyre sizes are specified in-line with the vastly differing load capacities and wheelbases of the two and four-seat versions. Thus the 995kg Fortwo Coupe and 1,040kg Cabriolet use 6.0J x 16-inch wheels in front and 7.0J x 17-inch at the rear, shod with 185/50R16 and 205/40R17 tyres respectively, Yokohama providing the Brabus specific tyres.
The 1,095kg Forfour is fitted with 6.0J and 7.0J x 17-inch wheels, shod with 185/45R17 and 205/40R17 rubber. Finally, the ESP has been recalibrated to take into account the revised suspension hardware.
One of the highlights of the Brabus smart line-up that debuted with the 451 range is the ‘smart Brabus Tailor Made’ service that delivers an haute couture personalisation service for owners. The range of leathers is extensive, and owners can even have a ‘colour to sample’ interior trimmed in leather and/or Alcantara if they have a favourite shirt or handbag they wish to have matched.
Tooling along in the city of Dusseldorf where the launch was centred, I was immediately impressed by the fact that the uprated Brabus springs and more substantial rubber footprint has not played havoc with the ride quality.
The secondary ride is still supple enough that the chassis is not challenged by the road surface degradation that is becoming more common in European countries starved of funds to repair the damage caused by heavy trucks and hard winters.
Fast country roads and the autobahn highlight the improvement in stability. On fast sweepers taken at a clip the new smart Brabus feels secure once committed to a bend. This is a chassis that would not be at sea with another 20hp.
Top speed runs on the autobahn saw the little black cabriolet accelerate resolutely up to its top speed with little apparent stress. The three-cylinder motor revs out quickly and keenly, emitting its characteristic offbeat soundtrack that sound like half a Porsche 911 flat six. The low tyre noise and decent ride quality mean that this third generation Fortwo really can pack a few hundred kilometers under its belt without its occupants requiring therapy at the end of their journey.
While the powered canvas roof opens and closes easily at the touch of a button even at 120km/h, if you want the full convertible experience, you have to stop and remove the detachable cant rails and drop them into their stowage tray in the tailgate.
As the smart Fortwo Cabriolet has about half the torsional rigidity of its hatchback sibling you can feel some scuttle shake on bad roads. Other than that, the car is very nicely made and all the cabin fittings are well screwed together and feel like they will last a long time.
Out on the test track we were issued with the hatchback version and given a couple of laps behind the pace car to familiarise us with its tight and twisty bends joined by two 180-degree sweepers.
With just four laps allotted I went for it with a vengeance and found to my delight that the nose is quite pointy with far less inherent understeer than I envisaged. In fact I quickly found that I could ‘back’ the car into the long bends, setting it up to tuck in neatly with a gentle throttle lift on the way in, and gradually applying more and more power until I emerged from the sweeper on full noise.
The quick left-right chicane with a very slight rise in elevation mid-bend could be taken flat in third before braking hard for the slow section. The brakes worked well, with good retardation and pedal feel, and importantly, hard braking did not destabilise the car.
There is no doubt that in the cut and thrust of fast moving suburban traffic the small and nimble smart Brabus with a good driver at the helm will embarrass drivers of much more powerful cars.
The latest smart Fortwo is a very practical city car that is now refined enough to do longer trips as well, and the Brabus version feels well sorted and is moderate fun to drive. The only downside really is its high asking price, but then it really is a premium product with no direct marketplace rivals.
Dr Ian Kuah.
Smart Car Specialist would like to thank Dr. Ian Kuah for allowing us to publish the article and photos on our blog.