By Wayne Gorrett, Newcastle, England.
Update @ 28.08.2015 : The Smart Fortwo open-top Cabrio is announced. UK orders open mid-November, with first-deliveries expected in February, 2016. Click here for pic.
🙂 ‘Bobby’, the bobbing automated manual gearbox is banished.
🙂 Superior, conventional five-speed manual ‘box takes its place.
🙂 Suspension improvements deliver a more supple ride.
😦 Fortwo’s rear visibility is restricted in terms of distance.
😦 Front seats would benefit from more lateral support.
Along a picturesque, 180-mile route over the raw, snow-clad hills that swathe over the Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve a few miles south west of Newcastle, I joined several of my peers at the recent UK media launch of the new 2015 Smart Fortwo and Forfour siblings. It had been a number of years since my last Smart drive, so I wanted to find out if the rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout of the new Fortwo had improved in two critical areas. I’m such a worrywart, you see.
Developed in the mid-nineties in a joint venture between funky Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch and Daimler AG, the Smart car was launched to the world’s press in 1998, receiving a mixed reception. The one-box, ‘motorised shopping cart’ didn’t seem like a proper car – not in the conventional sense anyway, which deterred quite a few potential customers.
Seventeen years on, the 2015 Smart Fortwo is the third iteration of the popular city car and the second for the Forfour. During the intervening years, we’ve become quite accustomed to the quirky little Fortwo on our roads, and the chest-thumping ‘size-matters’ and ‘hairdresser’ jibes have mostly dried up. While some 1.6 million Smarts have been sold in 46 countries (a remarkable success by any measure), the new Smart siblings don’t come a day too soon to inject a much-needed dynamic back into Smart showrooms.
At slightly less than 2.7m (9 feet) in length, the two-passenger micro car has always allowed its driver to squeeze nose-first into those curbside spots that are too small for even the stubbiest of subcompacts – Toyota IQ’s included. Impressive as it surely was, for many that’s about where the Fortwo’s appeal ended.
To tip the odds back in their favour this time round, the Smart engineering team has deployed two fundamental improvements; it has finally ditched that ‘bobbing’ five-speed automated manual gearbox for a conventional five-speed manual gearbox and – crucially – the new Fortwo wears a redesigned suspension setup which offers longer wheel travel, resulting in more agile handling and a composed ride. These two improvements alone have transformed the little car into one which should now appeal to a greater audience.
Co-developed with Renault, the new Fortwo shares its platform with the third-generation Twingo, which recently became available in the UK and only last week received the ‘City Car of the Year’ award. The Smart keeps its trusty rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive architecture and continues to be powered by two, three-cylinder petrol engines – one naturally aspirated and the other turbocharged.
As with previous generations of the very compact city car, we can safely anticipate an all-electric Smart III variant and a ragtop cabriolet somewhere in the not too distant future. We can also expect a top-of-the-range Smart Brabus III, which would bring all the now-familiar hallmarks of the illustrious German tuning company – aggressive good looks, a more opulent interior, greater performance and improved road holding. There’s no news yet of its availability, but I doubt it’ll be too far away.
The Smart Fortwo is manufactured in the expansive ‘Smartville’ facility at Hambach, north-east France, while the Forfour begins its life at the Renault production plant in Novo Mesto, Slovenia.
➤ The Style Factory
The new Smart Fortwo appears much more of an automotive adult compared to the outgoing model, resembling a frequent visitor to the gym, especially to the iron-pumping department.
Designers of the new Smart Fortwo have improved its looks considerably. A more rounded front end offers better pedestrian protection as demanded by ever-changing EU regulations. It also gives the Smart a new two-box look (bonnet and cabin), instead of the previous cheese wedge where the windscreen was a glazed extension of a similarly-angled bonnet – much like the original A-Class Merc.
The rear has also received the bubble treatment to offset low-speed collisions outside of its own, largely impenetrable Tridion ‘safety cell’ which is a remarkable feat of engineering…but more on that later.
The track width of the car has been increased by 10 centimetres giving the car a more muscular stance. What the designers haven’t altered is the overall length of the car at 2,695mm, retaining its brilliance for parking in tight spaces. It also retains its truly astonishing kerb-to-kerb turning circle of just 6.95 metres (22.8 feet), which is a full two feet tighter than the benchmark established by the London black cab.
The new LED brake lights and front daytime running lights inject a degree of Germanic style and class and the Smart Fortwo carries over the practical split tailgate of the previous car.
➤ Is the inside good?
Since the first Smart, its interiors have been fun and funky which is fully in character with the raison d’être of the car. The new interior is evolutionary rather than radical and is a notable step forward in terms of practicality and improved levels of quality, including the option of colourful textiles on many tactile surfaces. That Mercedes-Benz has invested heavily on the Smart’s new interior shows throughout.
Hop in and immediately noticeable is the extra space made available by the increase in width. Two chaps could get comfy without a clash of elbows – so long as at least one of you has avoided the Ginsters.
For its size, the Fortwo feels oddly spacious and comfortable and a good driving position is readily achievable, but I would have preferred reach adjustment on the steering wheel, as well as the available rake. Build quality appears to be as good as before.
Being a vertically-challenged chap, I like an elevated driving position and usually raise the driver’s seat to its maximum height. However, when doing so in the Fortwo, I could see no further than 30 feet behind the car in the rearview mirror and had to crouch low to see further, reducing the mirrored image to a mere slot. The Forfour fared only slightly better.
There’s a new 3.5in TFT colour info display in the driver’s binnacle and at centre stage in the dashboard sits the new ‘floating’ infotainment touch-screen, which fortunately is not plopped intrusively proud of the dash like current models of Mercedes.
Behind the Fortwo’s seats, a 360-litre boot awaits. As with the previous Smart, it’s not overly deep because that’s where the engine lives. The seats, while comfortable, would benefit from more lateral support on both sections, if only to refrain from holding on to the steering wheel while enjoying the twisty bits.
➤ It’s very small – is it safe?
Even with the Smart now in its third generation, a major concern expressed by many about the car surrounds its safety. Many still feel they would be vulnerable in a collision, which is all fully understandable, given its diminutive dimensions.
Since the first generation, all Smarts have been developed around what its engineers call a ‘Tridion’ safety cell – a structure built using a high proportion of hot-formed steels and multiphase steel, which are especially strong.
Smart knows it can rattle on until it’s blue in the face about its protective Tridion safety cell, but sometimes it’s better just to show the dinky city car in a crash test, this time with the all-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class (50% overlap at 31mph) – a kind of David & Goliath Crash-Off, if you will…
ESP, hill-start assist, tyre pressure monitoring system, crosswind assist and five airbags are standard, while forward collision warning, rear parking aid, rear camera and lane-keeping assistance are options. An ISOFIX system with ‘TopTether’ attachment is standard on the Fortwo’s passenger seat and the Smart’s headrests are integrated into the seatbacks.
➤ What’s in the toy boxes?
The new Smart Fortwo and Forfour will be available in seven models across three variants – Passion, Prime and Proxy. There is one special launch edition called, er…Edition #1.
Standard kit on the entry-level Passion is generous and includes 15in, 8-spoke alloys, LED daytime driving lights, remote central locking, immobiliser, Smart’s ‘Cool’ audio system, auto climate control, cruise control with speed limiter, electric windows, multi-function steering wheel and a trip computer. However, in the UK, the Passion trim level will not be available initially, but will follow sometime in the summer.
Prime trim level adds uprated 15-inch bi-colour alloys, a panoramic glass roof, additional clock and rpm dashboard instrument pods, lane-keeping assist, a textured black fabric dashboard, leather furniture and heated seats.
The Proxy variant surrenders the heated leather seats of the Prime trim for cloth and leather Artico versions, but gains black 16-inch wheels, a chrome exhaust finisher, alloy pedals, a sports steering wheel trimmed in perforated leather and a ride height lowered by 10mm with sports suspension.
The Edition #1 variant comes with white body panels and ‘lava orange’ finishings highlighting the Tridion safety cell. It also adds aluminium sports pedals, velour floor mats with ‘Edition #1’ motifs and chucks in the Premium Plus package for good measure.
The Premium package adds rear parking sensors, sat-nav and a height adjustable steering wheel, which costs £795. The Premium Plus package adds the same, but also brings LED headlights, auto lights and wipers, a rear-view camera and ambient lighting, all for £1,295.
As with many brands these days, personalisation is the buzzword and Smart is running with the pack here. Eight exterior colours are available for the Fortwo and it is available with a choice of three contrasting colours for the exposed elements of the Tridion safety cell and three shades for the front grille.
Also optional for younger ears is a JBL sound system with a 240W amp and eight speakers in the Fortwo, and 320W and twelve speakers in the Forfour. (Actually, with the able assistance of Planet Rock, it’s pretty cool, if I’m honest.) Touchscreen navigation and smartphone integration are also options, with a handy pride-of-place cradle to slot your phone into.
➤ How does it perform?
There are two, three-cylinder petrol engines on offer. The first is a naturally-aspirated 1.0-litre unit offering 71hp (at 6,000rpm), with a peak torque of 91Nm at 2,850 rpm. The (official) combined cycle is 68.9mpg and it emits a tax-free 93g/km of CO2. From rest, 62mph in achieved in 14.4 seconds and top speed will read 94mph when achieved.
The other engine offers up 90hp at 5,500rpm from its smaller, but turbocharged capacity of 898cc. Torque is greater at 135Nm and the official combined economy is 67.3mpg, emitting a slightly more but still tax-free 97g/km of CO2. From the starting blocks, 62mph can be clocked at and impressive 10.4 seconds and go on to reach 96mph as its top speed.
To be honest, during every day driving there’s very little tangible difference between the two, barring the rasping audio note of the turbo engine. That said, the 71hp engine sounds none-too-shabby when pushed either.
While the latest breed of three-cylinder engines have their detractors, both these engines are more than adequate for everyday use and pull away in reasonable fashion. While they may take a while to reach cruising speed, you would both expect and know that prior to purchase so it wouldn’t come as a surprise.
At a cruising speed of 70mph, the engine revs on the 71hp unit read 3,150rpm, while the 90hp turbo engine sounded less stressed with an rpm of 2,900 at motorway speeds. Road, wind and engine noise is evident, but none so intrusive as to stifle conversation. However, road noise over even good surfaces was the greater offender.
During the summer there will be a six-speed dual-clutch automatic joining the line-up, but prices and to which trims it will be available are as yet unknown.
➤ How does it drive?
Dynamically, the 2015 Smart Fortwo is a much-improved entity which became increasingly evident as the miles ticked over. The extra 100mm given to the track width affords a more reassuring feel on the road.
The new Fortwo borrows elements of the previous C-Class’ front axle, improving spring travel and results in more agile handling and a more composed ride, especially around the city. The turning circle, being a whole two feet tighter than that of the trend-setting London black cab, is difficult to comprehend until you’ve experienced it. When you do, a huge grin awaits, at minimum.
The willing little 1.0-litre delivers acceptable performance for a three-pot. While 71hp is little to brag about, its performance feels eager, bearing mind the little tyke weighs less than 900kg. The five-speed manual gearbox is good and does its job quickly and efficiently, without impeding progress.
The ride is far more supple and composed than previous, with the re-engineered suspension absorbing the standard urban obstacles such as potholes and drain covers with more composure than you might expect. However, while the urban environment is undoubtedly the car’s true home, the Smart loses some of its controlled composure on faster, more open roads. While the steering is quick, it feels a little numb and slow to respond at higher speeds. With the seat height set around midway, there’s noticeable body roll in corners.
➤ The Bottom Lines
Prices for the two-door Fortwo range with the 71hp start from £11,125 in Passion trim, while the top-spec Proxy will cost £11,820, both before options and packages. Should you opt for the 90hp turbocharged motor in your Fortwo, expect to pay £11,720 for the entry-level Passion and £12,415 for the top proxy trim.
Prices for the four-door Forfour range with the 71hp start from £11,620 in Passion trim, while the top-spec Proxy will cost £12,315, both before options and packages. Should you opt for the 90hp turbocharged motor in your Forfour, expect to pay £12,215 for the entry-level Passion and £12,910 for the top proxy trim.
Packages include ‘Comfort’, at £295 and ‘Premium’ at £795 (both are available on all three trims) and ‘Premium Plus’ at £1,295 which is only available on the mid Prime and top Proxy trims.
➤ The Smart Forfour
I had the opportunity to drive the Forfour on the return journey. Effectively a stretched Fortwo, the four-seater has a single-piece tail-gate and a more sloping roof-line.
With the rear seats folded flush into the floor via an ingenious flip and fold system, you can put surprisingly tall items in the back-seat area. Rear seats down, it has a 975-litre boot capacity. Both Smarts get mechanical steering with electrical power-assistance.
The rear doors open to 85° allowing for easy access and egress. The Forfour has an extra 795mm to its length and retains the Smart family look and is far more versatile than the previous Forfour. However, such versatility does come at a price, when comparing similar four-door rivals.
The Forfour has an even more composed and compliant ride than the Fortwo, which is due to the extra wheelbase length and additional weight. But when you want to mix it up through the twisty bits, it’s a delightfully chuckable pup.
Should most of your driving be enjoyed within largely urban confines – an environment in which the Smart Fortwo feels most at home – then the lesser-powered 71hp Fortwo is the one to go for. However, for those who need to take an occasional intercity motorway trip, you may appreciate the extra power and cruising refinement of the 90hp turbocharged engine.
With the Smart Forfour’s additional accommodations now greater than before, small families might actually pop into a Smart dealer and try it out for size. They should because it’s good.
If an automatic is your mug of hot cocoa, then best wait for the summer when a 6-speed dual clutch auto arrives. No, it is not a CVT and no, it is not an automated manual. We have much to be thankful for.
The Smart has matured into a car that can demand consideration on its own improved merits. The things I didn’t like on the old version – that awful gearbox, the handling, the ride quality, the general lack of refinement have been batted out of the park, and the new 2015 Smart siblings are all the better for it.
They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But, goodness me, this new pair are an awful lot better now than they have ever been and as a lifestyle fit across all three demographics, they are easy to recommend.