2008 Smart fortwo review

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2008 Smart fortwo first steer

A touch of "blasphemy" ensures Smart's second coming

Say what you like about Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. But the book and later movie did have one good effect. By introducing the world's largest car market, the US, to the Smart car it did its bit to keep Smart, DaimlerChrysler's bold experiment in alternative urban motoring alive at a time when the pressures to wind the whole thing down were strong.

In the book and movie a pretty hokey plot about the descendents of Christ jousting with sinister ecclesiastical forces is given much-needed European flair by a Smart fortwo that leads its priestly pursuers on a merry chase through Paris.

Nice touch, because the French capital is full of Smarts.

US audiences, many of whom must have mistaken the urban runabout for some sort of hot-rodded golf cart, were intrigued. In September 2006, at the height of Da Vinci Code movie madness, DaimlerChrylser announced the Smart fortwo would be sold in the US from January 2008. Coincidence? Or conspiracy?

But seriously, the second generation Smart fortwo, launched yesterday in Sydney is Smart US-style. Not surprisingly it's bigger all round than the original version which began its conceptual existence in the early 1990s as a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and watch-maker Swatch.

The new fortwo is 19.5cm longer, 4.3cm wider and 1.9cm higher than the car it replaces. It has a larger boot, with 70 litres more space for 220 litres in total.

There are four variants, with coupe and cabrio body styles powered by either a rear-mounted naturally aspirated 999cc in-line three-cylinder (52 kW, 92Nm) or a turbocharged version of the same engine (62kW, 120Nm). It's quite a jump on the 699cc 45kW, 95Nm engine of the previous model. Top speed for all variants is 145km/h. Stated fuel consumption is 4.7 litres per 100km for the base engine and 4.9l/100km for the turbo.

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Inside the Smart has smartened up its act. The design language of the original car was quirky, toy-like and distinctly alternative in its feel, as if to emphasise that Smart was not a car but an alternative to the car. The new Smart looks more like a car inside. The soft, pastel curved dashboard is gone, replaced by a straight dash bearing recognisable Mercedes-Benz components, such as the audio and heating controls.

Apart from the design changes, the fortwo gains side head-thorax airbags, gearshift paddles on the steering wheel, a dashboard-mounted clock and rev counter (these used to be optional) and automatic door locking.

There's also electronic stability control (with hill start assist), ABS braking with brake force distribution and hydraulic brake assist. Oh, and a four-star EuroNCAP crash test rating, which is pretty extraordinary for something its size.

The coupe variants come with a panoramic polycarbonate roof with sunblind while the cabriolets receive a fully automatic folding roof with glass rear window. Leather upholstery, heated seats, electric power steering and an uprated sound system are all available as options.

First impression of the 1.0-litre Smart is that it's closer to the mainstream of small cars than its oddball predecessor was. The new engine gives it the ability to more than keep up with urban traffic, something the old one only did if driven with terrifying Gallic panache. The standard version gets from 0-100km/h in 13.3 seconds, and the turbo does the journey in 10.9 seconds, almost fast by the standards of city cars. Both versions move smartly off the line despite their minimal power.

For those who want more, Mercedes-Benz Australia is looking at bringing in the Brabus-tuned version. With 72kW and 140Nm it does the 0-100 dash in - wait for it - 9.9 seconds, which will feel faster than it sounds, given that the original Smart's tendancies to understeer and and react to crosswinds are still present, although to a lesser degree in the new model.

It still feels vastly different on the road to any other car, and not always in a good way. The steering is light, even in non-assisted standard form and while low speed handling is uncannily maneuverable it can feel disturbingly close to its dynamic limits on roundabouts.

But with more power, a longer wheelbase and a wider track it does feel more at home on fast urban roads and freeways than its predecessor.

Ride is sharp, to say the least: it is not the most comfortable device for taking on Sydney's coarse concrete-slab roads. And the seats are hard and flat.

The 1.0-litre fortwo comes standard with a sequential five-speed transmission. That's one less speed than on the old model, which is one less gear to get confused about with the counter-intuitive clutchless tiptronic-style shifting system. To be fair, shifts are sharper than before, although not up to the standard of a twin-clutch transmission.

A final and serious criticism of the fortwo is that rear visibility is not nearly as good as might be expected in such a small car. The view in the windscreen mirror largely consists of the two head restraints, with a little patch of road between them.

The new Smart isn't perfect, but it is smart. As a statement of ecological soundess, combined with impressive engineering detail it's up there with the Toyota Prius. And then there's the price: $19,990 for the base engine coupe, with the turbo at $21,990. The base engine cabriolet its $22,990, or $24,990 with the turbo engine. Mercedes-Benz Australia expects to sell about 300 fortwos this year, a number kept low by restricted supply because 30,000 have been pre-ordered by American customers.

Robert Wilson