It should be widely known that regardless of a car journalist’s impartiality, we are all still individuals with our personal automotive preferences.
That doesn’t mean such preferences get a free ride when it comes to objective judgement; rather that as individuals placed in the shoes of a buyer we’d personally overlook a car’s eccentricities or foibles even if we’d recommend that others look elsewhere.
Mentioning Top Gear is a bit of a cliché and Alfa Romeo even more so, but while recommending the Italian marque as a car for true petrolheads, the TG three have also been known to say that just because they like Alfa Romeos, it doesn’t actually mean you should buy one. Wonderful cars, but the subtext is that buyers less inclined towards head over heart decisions may be better served elsewhere.
I’d say the same about Honda’s CR-Z hybrid coupe. Personally, I love the styling. It has enough performance for me to have fun with, it’s economical enough for my needs, and I love the space-age interior. Wearing my Serious Hat though, it’s probably a bit too slow, a bit too expensive and not quite as economical as you’d hope. There are objectively better coupes around for less money, but it’s an interesting choice for those thinking outside the box.
The Smart Fortwo is almost literally a box you have to think outside, and this causes problems for a few people.
Performance is lacking in most versions, the gearbox causes grown men to weep with frustration and it will not out-point a Porsche Boxster in the corners. It is, however, a car I have a great deal of time for, and one that causes eyebrows to raise every time I tell someone how fond I am of it.
It’s home to more foibles than any other car on sale, which for some is too much of an obstacle to overcome. My journalistic duty dictates I should suggest you get something… nay, anything else when shopping for a city car, because by most standards the Smart Fortwo is spanked raw by its city car competitors – Ups, Picantos, 107s and the like. But I’d have it over any of them because I find the Fortwo utterly charming in a way most small cars are not.
One reason is in the unique challenge of extracting performance from it.
I grant you, this is frustrating even for me in the basic naturally-aspirated car. There’s too little forward momentum to overcome the gearchange pauses. But in the diesel or BRABUS – both turbocharged – it’s genuinely fun.
Great auto wordsmith LJK Setright once wrote of the Fiat 126 that:
“There is an unfortunate but quite irresistible urge that overcomes a 126 driver, however well-meaning, as soon as he takes the wheel: it is a compulsive desire to drive the little thing absolutely flat out, all the time and everywhere.”
The same, I believe, can be said of the Fortwo. Driving it at maximum velocity hardly seems to dent economy (I managed 50mpg during a week with a BRABUS) so you feel liberated to make the most of it. How many other cars can grant this pleasure?
It also has a degree of that white-knuckle feel of piloting a slightly shoddy classic car at high velocities, that of occasionally feeling you’ve overstepped its abilities and sending your heart aflutter. Objectively you don’t want your Fortwo to feel like it’s bouncing off the tarmac on a B-road or that the ESP light is blinking like Homer Simpson’s desk at the nuclear power plant during a meltdown; subjectively, I find it a hoot.
The lack of performance doesn’t seem to matter so much anyway. As a counterpoint to the usual suggestion that speed feels faster closer to the tarmac, I find the Smart’s high-rise driving position and narrow stature conjures similar sensations.
And when you get into town, the Fortwo’s real environment, the high driving position and ultra-short and narrow body really does make sense.
People say that having a narrow car in town is pointless since you’ll still get stuck in traffic. While that’s true, it ignores all those situations that you aren’t in a queue but may be squeezing through a tight gap anyway – if a bus is half-way across a lane when waiting to turn, or when passing opposing traffic down a narrow street. The Smart’s narrowness gives an extra confidence margin, just as a Renault Twizy does to an even greater degree. More of the lane is yours to play with. It gives you options.
Shortness means ease of parking. Spectacular ease. It’s even satisfying in parking bays, as well as parallel to the kerb – swinging into a bay space with masses of room to spare is liberating after driving huge saloons and 4x4s that seem to occupy every square inch and require parking a quantum distance from the barrier in front.
I like the styling inside and out. The current Smart Fortwo has had a few facelifts but that’s all that has been needed to keep it looking bang up to date. Could you honestly say it doesn’t look like a car from 2014?
And no, it’s not pretty, but since when have all cars needed to look pretty? Original Minis or Fiat 500s actually look a bit goofy and gormless but they’re appreciated as much for the function of their form as their form itself. A Smart’s function is surprising interior and luggage space in 2.5 metres of length, and an exposed safety structure. Inside it all seems geometric and simple, airy and colourful. There’s personality here lacking from the grey dungeons of many modern cars.
The gearbox? That’s still a bit crap, but you can work around it. Like mastering the Fortwo’s wayward handling, it’s simply a unique skill. And the ride is firm, but the aforementioned narrowness does give you a little more room to avoid potholes and the like.
2014 marks the year a new Smart Fortwo is due.
They’re giving it a manual gearbox, and an optional dual-clutch. It’s also going to be longer and a not insignificant amount wider. This should make it drive, handle and ride better. It will almost certainly be a more accomplished car than the current one. It may even make some think twice about those more conventional city cars.
But in making the Fortwo itself more conventional, I hope Smart doesn’t give it a personality bypass. I’d like to continue recommending this as a car of the heart, as well as one of the head.
Images © Smart.