The following review coincides with the Smart’s launch in the US and therefore will be reviewed in relation to that specific market.
On paper the Smart micro-car is as revolutionary an ideas as the original MINI. The Smart is mid-engined, small and efficient in both space and economy. The Smart Fourtwo (the only Smart made these days) comfortably seats two while offering a boot not too different from the MINI’s own. However the big difference in terms of space is that lack of rear seats that the MINI offers.
The other big difference? Where the MINI is one of the most entertaining new cars I’ve ever driven, the Smart is easily the worst. And I’m not talking about just mediocre. The Smart’s driving experience is truly appalling. In fact, as much as I’m aware of the 10-12 month waiting lists, I honestly can’t imagine anyone buying this car after a test drive.
With only three cylinders to its name, you’d expect the Smart to sluggish. Consider that expectation met. But it’s slowness is something you can easily live with once you get used to planning ahead. What is almost impossible to cope with is the ineptness of the five speed auto-manual. So bad is this transmission’s manual mode that its shift times can be counted not in 1/10ths of a second but in full seconds. Actually almost two full seconds was the time it took to regularly shift from 2nd to 3rd gear under acceleration. I had to redefine my expectations of what shifting meant while driving the Smart. That said, in auto mode it was smoother and shifted at an almost adequate pace. Probably fast enough that most people wouldn’t complain until the luster of ownership wore off.
So we’ve established that getting the Smart going from a stop is sluggish and shifting (once underway) is painful. Then it probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that stopping a Smart is an exercise that requires equal parts courage and faith. Brake feel is simply non-existent. There’s no feedback and the effort to actually get the brakes to engage is surprisingly robust. Then there’s the actual engagement point which is seems to be a zone on the pedal’s travel that is roughly a millimeter long. This all translates into the brakes feeling as if they are either on or off. There’s no in between and there’s no illusion of feedback. The result is a braking system that feels like a complete mystery to the driver.
But the lack of feel in the braking pales in comparison to what you get (or don’t get as it were) with the Smart’s steering feel. There is none. At best it’s overboosted and at worse it’s dangerous. The wheel gives you no indication as to what the car is doing where the tires meet the road and no confidence to do anything other than gingerly go around corners. But that’s actually a good thing as anything other than slow cornering will result in the gear selector becoming one with the side of your right thigh. In fact, if the selector wasn’t there, I can only guess my right leg would have ended up on the passenger’s seat during moderate left-handers.
Driving the Smart Fourtwo can feel like playing Grand Tourismo while using a coffee table mounted Logitech steering wheel with the big difference being, in the Smart you could theoretically die. I’m not here to say the Smart is dangerous. It’s just not the most confidence inspiring experience on the road. And surprisingly it’s the driving experience and not the size that contribute to this.
Inside the Smart is a mix of plastic, what seemed to be leather and fabric with white specs. Now I’m not entirely clear when things go from out of style to retro to back in style but I was pretty sure black carpet with white specs hadn’t reached the latter stage. Then there’s the stereo. Maybe there were two speakers. Maybe there were four. Whatever the number, none of them added up to anything worth a damn.
But let’s not lose sight of what this car is. In the US market it’s a $13k urban runabout without air-con and with roll-up windows. In Europe or other severely congested and cities with high petrol prices it almost makes sense. But in a market like the US, wouldn’t a certified pre-owned MINI Cooper be just a few dollars more? Of course you’d get more space, more style and the Cooper is infinitely more fun to drive. The Smart has the edge on economy (and it’s fairly substantial when compared to the R50 Cooper) but if this is intended to be an urban runabout, how much driving are you really going to do and how much is that extra efficiency going to help?
I want to like the Smart. It’s a great concept that is probably more in tune with the real needs of more than a few currently piloting unnecessarily large vehicles. Yet I can’t help but feel the car ultimately fails in almost every conceivable way. Actually the more I think about the more I’m convinced there is absolutely no reason why anyone should be buying a Smart in a market like the US. Unless you live in a gated community that only allows golf carts, the Smart is a poor choice for just about every occasion. Its overall driving experience was literally painful and the cost is all to close to the much more capable MINI or a number of other much better competitors.