The micro-car company Smart has been through tough times, but a new line-up promises to rejuvenate the brand. We recently attended the world launch of the new ForTwo and ForFour in Barcelona, Spain.
Since its inception, first as the Swatch Car in 1993, then as the Micro Car Company (MCC), and finally as Smart in 1998, this micro-car builder faced plenty of challenges.
This was partly because the idea was too revolutionary and, well, too smart at the time. Not only did the design and build processes rely on the commitment of many different partners, it also introduced radical ideas, such as centralised supplier facilities and interchangeable plastic panels on all models.
This proved costly, leading to the company being restructured and completely integrated into the Daimler AG organisation in 2006. It also meant all models, except the diminutive ForTwo, were discontinued.
Redesigned in 2007 and revamped in 2010, the ForTwo kept Smart going. With a stable 100 000 unit sales a year a total of 1.6 million ForTwo’s have been retailed up until the present.
With Daimler AG ending its agreement with Mitsubishi in 2005 (signalling the end of the original ForFour, based on the Mitsubishi Colt) much work was done behind the scenes to find a suitable new partner for Smart.
In the end Renault (who already shares engine technology with Mercedes-Benz) was the preferred ally, making it possible to base the new model ForTwo and new Twingo on the same rear-wheel drive platform.
It also made it possible for Smart to develop a new ForFour with rear-wheel drive – a crucial addition to ensure Smart’s continued viability.
The new models were newly designed from the ground up. The latest ForTwo is slightly bigger than its predecessor, with a 10mm wider track, but still measuring only 2,69 m in length, while the ForFour is 80cm longer.
Small it may be, but the ForTwo can gobble up as much as 975 litres of luggage and items of 2.2m long. The ForFour now boasts reversible “readyspace” rear seats, providing 12cm more loading height, and its rear doors can open really wide – close to 90°.
Space for front seat passengers is ample in the ForFour, but leg and headroom at the back is limited and the low seating position and shallow cushions will make longer trips uncomfortable.
While the new models’ more chunky looks are modern and quite funky, it won’t appeal to everyone. The range is available with three equipment lines (Passion, Prime and Proxy), five trim packages (Comfort, Cool & Audio, Cool & Media, LED & Sensor en Sports) and a wide selection of optional accessories.
They are powered by three new state-of-the-art three-cylinder engines – either a 999 cc normally aspirated mill delivering 45kW/89Nm or 52kW/91Nm, or a turbocharged 898cc derivative (66kW/135Nm). No diesel engine is available yet.
A five-speed manual transmission or six-speed Twinamic dual clutch transmission drive the rear wheels, and both are a major improvement over the lethargic AMT ’box previously used.
Also immediately noticeable was their improved ride quality. Even with the optional sport suspension (with 10 mm less ground clearance) it is more compliant, thanks to a new MacPherson strut front suspension and a De Dion setup with twin-tube shock absorbers, plus tyres with higher side walls.
Surprisingly the different sized tyres (165/65R15 in front and 185/60 R15 at the rear) are not run-flats, and there’s also no spare, just a tyre repair kit.
The ForFour is not aimed at enthusiastic drivers. Even with rear-wheel drive its natural tendency is to understeer and its nanny systems are far too aggressive. The steering felt artificial, but was quite accurate.
The new Smart range is only expected here in late 2015 and pricing, according to Smart, will be very similar to the current models. This means a ForTwo (at current exchange rates) will cost around R180 000, with the ForFour upwards of R220 000.