The third generation smarts are here at last, and they represent a major sea change in both design and engineering philosophy for the ‘think different, think funky’ part of the Mercedes-Benz portfolio.
While the original smart (450), later to be renamed Fortwo, was an expensively engineered stand alone product that stood out for its significant design and engineering innovations, the smaller volume Forfour used some parts from Mitsubishi, which was part of the fragile DaimlerChrysler empire back then.
By this time it was clear that the Fortwo had been ahead of its time and took years to build sales momentum, while the Forfour had entered a crowded market segment in which it was clearly too expensive without offering any real USP.
This time round, smart has combined forces with Renault, sharing many parts with the new Twingo, and allowing both to enjoy economies of scale. Yet the end products are so different, you would never guess that the new smart shares around 70% of its underpinnings with Renault’s new Twingo. The philosophical fit is certainly there as Renault had several rear-engined models in their portfolio over the years.
Importantly, the new Fortwo (453) retains the two-seat, rear-mounted engine configuration of its predecessors, as well as the 269 cm overall length of the 451. However, width has been increased by 11 cm, benefitting cabin room as well as comfort and stability.
The three-cylinder Renault engines come in two flavours, and both sound great with the distinctive three-cylinder warbling growl under acceleration. The entry-level 999cc naturally aspirated motor produces 71 hp and 91 Nm of torque at 2,850rpm for a rather sluggish 14.4 sec 0-100km/h and 151 km/h top speed.
The turbocharged 898cc version has 90hp, with a strong 135 Nm of torque at 2,500rpm. It gets to 100km/h in a decent 10.4 sec and tops out at 155km/h. It is much peppier all round and really fun to drive, so the forthcoming Brabus version should be really something.
All the new smarts come with a five-speed manual gearbox as standard. Shock horror! As urban traffic gets worse and jams even on motorways more common, I find the idea of a city car with manual transmission rather ridiculous. The clutch pedal is literally a pain in the leg in traffic jams, and getting rid of it was the idea behind the AMT (Automated Manual Transmission) gearbox in the 450 and 451 smart Fortwo models.
The problem is that many drivers simply do not understand that it is a clutchless manual, not an automatic, and lack of dealer education did not help. Thus, it transpires that almost all the complaints against the AMT transmission were caused by the wrong perception of what it actually did.
According to smart, when American 451 customers were asked if it was an automatic or manual gearbox, the bulk of them who had the problems with it said it was an automatic, and those who did not have issues said it was a manual, and knew to lift off the throttle slightly during upshifts.
In the end, after much driver education, smart got the complaint level down to around seven-percent, but still felt this was too much, hence the standard manual transmission and the forthcoming Renault-sourced six-speed DCT (dual clutch transmission) in the 453.
The DCT, which will be available from next spring, adds 1,000 euros and 30kg to the car. In this category, 1,000 euros is a lot of money, the main reason why all reasonably priced compact cars have manual transmissions as standard.
Smart brought along five DCT-equipped cars for us to try. Unfortunately these were not equipped with the paddle shifters that will be part of the Sport Package, along with 10mm lower suspension and 16-inch alloys.
The DCT works like a conventional automatic with a PRND selector gate and a manual mode engaged by flicking the lever to the left when in D. It is smooth in operation, but is an unhappy pairing with the 70hp 1.0 litre entry-level naturally aspirated motor.
In Eco mode, the car feels as flat as a pancake, and struggling to generate any feeling of performance. Things improve in Sport mode, but I was assured that it is a more natural pairing for the turbocharged motor, and should be great with the Brabus version.
For drivers who are happy with the manual gearbox, it is a good one, with short and precise throws. That said, the clutch is soggier than I would like, with an ill-defined take-up point that was slightly different across the three test cars that I tried.
The software controlled variable ratio electric power steering is the same for both cars. The engineers say that this suits the character of both cars and I tend to agree.
It gives the shorter Fortwo a sharper more direct feeling in keeping with its ultra manoeuvrable town character. The longer wheelbase of the Forfour makes the steering feel calmer, and is a perfect match for its turn-in rate on some very demanding mountain roads that were part of the test route on the second day.
The Fortwo’s 6.95 m turning circle is incredible, beating the legendary London taxi by over a metre, something no front-wheel-drive car is capable of. Even the 3.5 m long Forfour swings around in just 8.65 m. Turn the wheel hard over and just when you think you have reached the limit of the steering lock, it keeps going. “It’s a tight turning circle Jim, but not as we know it!”
Driven aggressively on the twisty mountain roads that were part of the test route, pushing the brakes and handling right to the bald limit, I found the Forfour to be a very engaging and competent handling car that would have been even more fun with more power and the ability to switch the ESP off.
With the weight of its engine over the driven rear wheels, it is like a mini-Porsche 911 with fabulous traction coming out of bends. I await the Brabus version with bated breath.
While it was possible to execute heel and toe downshifts on the way into bends, the car would have been faster and even more fun with the optional paddle shift controlled DCT transmission.
Most impressive are the very low levels of NVH intrusion to the cabin. Both cars hum along the motorway at an easy 120km/h with 3,000rpm on the rev counter with almost no road noise and very little engine noise. Both, but especially the Forfour, have a well-damped ride quality and mature feel to their chassis behaviour that is a serious draw for anyone who has never considered a smart before simply because the previous models could not do these things well enough.
The De Dion rear axle is carried over from the first two generation cars as it works well and is the ideal arrangement for packaging in such a compact car where there is simply no room for a double wishbone or multi-link independent rear. At the same time, it has the major advantage of always keeping the wheels upright and perpendicular to the road for best traction.
With MacPherson struts and a sub-frame to which the electric power steering rack is attached, the new front end also has new unequal length A-arms, which deliver a major improvement in terms of ride and handling.
The original 450 had a rudimentary A-arm design that was more or less symmetric due to the transverse leaf spring suspension. This lower arm design, carried over to the coil sprung 450 and the 451 models, was unable to deal effectively with road shocks, hence the jittery ride.
The new lower A-arms are beefier and asymmetric, which allows different bushes to be used for their front and rear locating points as on a normal car. Thus equipped, the A-arms are better able to absorb road shocks in all planes, and the improvement is dramatic.
Approaching some manhole covers on urban roads that would normally send a rude shock through the front end of a 450 or 451 Fortwo, I felt just a well-damped thud as the 16-inch tyre and new A-arm bushes easily absorbed the blow.
In terms of perceived build quality, the doors close with a solid ‘thunk’ as do the tailgates of both cars, giving a very positive first impression even before you climb on board, whereupon you discover consistently good build quality inside and out.
Thanks to the wider tracks, the new Fortwo’s cabin feels roomier, while the Panoramic roof in the Forfour gives the interior a very airy feel, and the materials and feeling of quality and solidity in both cars are very satisfying. In a sense, they are both so funky in design terms they have no direct competitors.
The doors open wide, especially the rears, which is a boon when you are loading large objects. A clever hinge system allows the rear doors to open to 85 degrees, which is a huge plus over normal doors opening angles.
The only downside is that the rear windows do not roll down as there is simply no vertical room for the glass. They are thus front-hinged and open about three inches using an over-centre rear catch. Ultimately, this is not a big problem though as the air-conditioning is very effective, with a huge rush of cold air from the big eyeball vents to keep things cool in summer. All it means is you will never see a dog or small child hanging out of the rear window of a smart!
Versatility has always been a smart strong suit, and the range of load carrying options for the Forfour interior takes this philosophy to an all-time high. If you have a taller load, the rear seat squabs can be flipped round to provide 12cm greater depth to carry, say the box for a modestly sized TV across the car. And with the 50/50 split folding rear seat down, you can fold the passenger seat backrest flat giving a through load long enough to carry a 2.2 m long IKEA Billy bookcase flat pack.
The new infotainment system and fixed wide screen in the centre of the dash are brilliant. They are touchscreen operated and quite intuitive. Given that Mercedes opened a new R&D centre in Silicon Valley last year, this comes as no surprise.
The standard audio system is pretty basic, so a worthwhile option is the good value for money high-end sound system by JBL system (eight speakers in the Fortwo and 12 in the Forfour), with a removable sub-woofer for when you need extra load space. The cost is a reasonable 500 euros in Germany.
The only downside is that there is no CD player or CD changer to feed it with, and so you are limited to USB inputs from an iPod or USB stick. This may not be satisfactory for audiophile types who are negatively sensitive to MP3 compression.
For checking and topping up of fluids, the bonnet panel has two quick release toggles either side of the front grille. A lock for these is an option and can be linked to the alarm if that is specified. The Fortwo has a roller blind over its luggage compartment, while the Forfour has a solid lift-out cover like most other hatchback cars.
The new smart Fortwo and Forfour show a much more united front than before, and a huge amount of thought and effort have clearly gone into their concept and execution.
The new Fortwo is a better all round car that now feels as happy on the motorway as it does in town, while the Forfour is a versatile all rounder, small enough for town parking yet refined enough to cover continents. The smart brand has finally come of age.
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.