Mercedes finesses next-gen Smarts
By: Denis Droppa
Barcelona, Spain - The previous generation Smarts were afflicted with a horrid automated-manual gearbox that rocked you back and forth between shifts in a most disconcerting manner.
The third-generation Smart, I'm happy to say, changes gears with far more smoothness and grace. Whether you opt for the five-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch automatic - each available in Smart for the first time - you no longer feel like you’re being bucked around on an angry sea.
This improved gearshift is part of a raft of changes designed to make Daimler’s new-generation city car - available in Fortwo and Forfour derivatives - more palatable to well-heeled urbanites seeking a car that’s easy to park and nips through traffic like a squirrel.
That squirrel-like nature was underlined in the tight, congested streets of Barcelona where I drove the Smart at its international media launch last week. The little rear-engined city car jostled nimbly with the countless scooters and taxis in the bustling Spanish city, even though its 100mm of added width was noticeable. Still, though it doesn’t squeeze into a city lane as effortlessly as its narrower predecessor, the Smart Fortwo remains the world’s easiest-to-park car with its 2690mm length, and the one with the tightest turning circle at 6950mm from kerb to kerb.
IMPROVED RIDE COMFORT
Along with this Pacman-like manoeuvrability the Smart - in both two and four-seater form - comes with improved ride comfort. Higher-profile tyres combined with longer travel suspension make for a less choppy ride over bumps. For a car with an ultra-short wheelbase I felt the Fortwo dealt with scarred roads very well - less so with its optionally stiffer sports suspension which seems a pointless exercise in a city car.
The longer-wheelbase Forfour delivers a particularly well-mannered ride, which makes this “family” version of the Smart a useable long-distance car. In the twisty mountain passes outside Barcelona the Forfour’s vague handling and lifeless steering proved that this is no rival to a Mini Cooper in terms of driving thrills, but it at least has the power to go a-wandering beyond city limits.
Two three-cylinder petrol engines are on offer in the new Smart range, a normally-aspirated one-litre rated for 52kW and 91Nm, and a turbocharged 898cc engine with 66kW and 135Nm. Each is a Renault engine, as part of a technology-sharing arrangement between Daimler and the Renault-Nissan alliance that sees the new Renault Twingo built on the same platform as the Forfour.
The turbo unit is a feisty, free-revving little engine, capable of hauling the car to a top speed of 165km/h. Fuel consumption, with the assistance of a stop-start system, is claimed to be less than 4.5 litres per 100km, although the cars I drove on the launch were averaging in the high sixes
For a car that’s about half a metre shorter than a Renault Clio, space in the Forfour’s rear seat is surprisingly useable. Cramped, but bearable, even for a pair of adults.
Boot space in each car is pretty handy too. The 260 litres offered by the Fortwo will happily accept a load of shopping bags, while the Forfour’s 185-litre luggage hold expands to 730 litres with the rear seats folded. Neither car has a spare wheel because there’s no space for one (the engines are in the rear, remember), and the tyres aren’t runflats either. There’s only a puncture repair kit to deal with tyre mishaps.
The Smart buyer split is said to be 50/50 male/female, but there’s no doubt the car’s design and demeanor has a more feminine edge even though the exterior styling is perhaps more chunky and masculine than before. With bright dual-tones including lava orange and bubblegum blue among the wide range of colour schemes, the car isn’t aimed at buyers who prefer subtlety.
Being a premium city car with a matching pricetag (though it’s too early to predict what the Smarts will cost when they arrive in South Africa late in 2015), the Smarts come well kitted with spec and safety.
As before both cars are built around a super-strong tridion safety cell with the body made of light and dent-resistant plastic panels, and the interior’s packed with five airbags.
ABS brakes, stability control and crosswind assist are further standard safety features while forward collision warning and lane-keeping assist are optional safety gizmos. The Smart range will eventually be expanded by battery-powered versions as well as a Fortwo convertible, but this time there won’t be a roadster.
South African buyers thus far haven’t “Smarted-up” in big numbers due to the Fortwo’s limited practicality, but if the pricing is right perhaps the Forfour’s made-by-Mercedes status is a drawcard that can attract some small-car buyers.
The two-seater will arrive here in December 2015 followed by the four-seater in the first quarter of 2016. - Star Motoring
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