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The Smart Fortwo is a unique proposition. Its emotional appeal is unquestionable and it is one of the most novel and innovative cars available.

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The Smart ForTwo is the sort of car we’d love to like. The rear-engined two-seater is packaged and engineered in an innovative and clever fashion that motordom has rarely seen in small cars since Alec Issigonis placed an engine crossways in the front of the Mini.

The realisation of the original Smart concept, however, was less endearing than the concept itself. For all its engineering purity, the first Smart CityCoupé – later renamed the ForTwo – was too compromised in daily use.

What is it with the lack of cupholders in this car? And does anyone else think it’s a bit mean to charge 20 quid for a glovebox so you can hide your valuables?

It was bad enough that it could seat only two and offered too little luggage space. Worse still, its sluggish performance and tardy gearchange made it less appealing to drive than the Fiat Panda, Ford Ka or Peugeot 107 / Citroen C1 / Toyota Aygo trio. Its final ignominy was that it was easily as expensive as any city car.

But Mercedes bosses reckoned that total sales of 770,000 cars in eight years showed the original concept was right, and with the world growing daily more conscious of car congestion and pollution, the future for a right-sized Smart operation might even be bright.

That’s why bosses summarily dumped the slow-selling Roadster and Forfour, slashed costs at the Hambach plant (by halving the workforce), devised a plan to sell the car in the US and set a crack team to work correcting the dynamic shortcomings of Smart's core model, the Fortwo.

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The latest ForTwo is meant to right all of the original’s wrongs. Smart has promised stronger performance, an improved gearbox, better steering, more interior room and more safety, while retaining the best elements from the first car. Does it work better this time round?

DESIGN & STYLING

Smart Fortwo false filler cap

Despite any practical shortcomings it might have, we can’t give a concept like the Smart ForTwo anything less than five stars in this department. Even more than a decade on from the car’s original launch, no other volume manufacturer has shown similar audacity or inventiveness in their cars’ construction or their packaging layout. We applaud, too, Smart’s persistence with making it work better this time.

The overall notion stays the same. The ForTwo is based on a high-strength ‘tridion’ safety cell and a visible steel monocoque with interchangeable plastic body panels mounted to it. The structure, according to engineers we’ve spoken to, is impressively strong in crash tests. Smart predicts four NCAP stars, which is impressive for a car with only 2695mm of length in which to squeeze its crumple zones.

The Fortwo can park at right angles to the kerb, but few owners do

The latest ForTwo is marginally bigger than the past model. It’s 195mm longer, most notably in the front overhang (up 72mm) because of pedestrian impact and US crash legislation. The wheelbase is up by 55mm and the remaining 68mm increase is in the rear overhang. Its engine is still under the boot floor.

Design changes, meanwhile, are minimal, keeping the Smart instantly recognisable. See one alone and, at a glance, you’d be pushed to tell whether it’s the new model or the old one. But look closer and the clues are there: those overhangs look slightly longer and it’s a tad wider, making it appear slightly podgier and squatter.

The emphasis, says Smart, is on making the ForTwo look less like it’s on tiptoes and more “beefy”. Beefy? Like an angry jelly baby, perhaps. It’s still at the cute end of any styling scale. If it were a schoolboy, the only fights it would pick are with Ralph Wiggum. But given its target audience, that’s probably no bad thing at all.

INTERIOR

Smart Fortwo dashboard

The Smart ForTwo’s extra 55mm of wheelbase and 43mm additional width translate into a slight increase in interior room. The passenger seat is still offset slightly behind the driver’s seat to create extra shoulder room in what is, at 1260mm, still a relatively narrow interior. Legroom and headroom are plentiful, though, and there’s a large glass area, so the interior feels light and airy.

The straight – rather than S-curved – dashboard (US crash regulations have to contend with passengers who aren’t wearing seatbelts) also aids the spacious feel. Sitting in the Smart feels roomier than in any rival’s front seats. Fit and finish are fine, too. Smart parent Mercedes has looked to alternative materials to raise the perceived quality, with some success.

Brake pedal is placed well over to the right. Feel is on the spongey side

The doors and dashboard are topped with what feels like wound cotton and it feels very classy. But the new Smart is not as funky as it was before. No longer are the heater vents stepped out on little spherical pods, for example.

The ForTwo’s boot is bigger than before but still small, at 220 litres, yet its split tailgate means that you can at least stack loads in it tightly through the glass hatch. What the Smart still doesn’t have, of course, is rear seats, which is where a Fiat Panda, Volkswagen Up or Peugeot 107 hold a distinct advantage.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Smart Fortwo convertible

This is one of the areas where we hoped Smart would have significantly improved matters over the original ForTwo. Yes, the Smart is a city car but, as the likes of the Volkswagen Up, Ford Ka and Fiat Panda show, that doesn’t mean you have to confine yourself to using the car in urban areas only.

With the Smart, even this new one, you may still want to. The base petrol model has a 999cc three-cylinder engine producing 70bhp, and although the ForTwo weighs only 750kg, its performance is still thoroughly ensconced in the box marked ‘sluggish’.

If you think this version’s frugal, think again. Smart has also developed a diesel, the stop-start ‘micro hybrid drive’ and a fully electric ForTwo.

The Smart ForTwo is very much an urban car, which in itself is fine. It’s just that its rivals don’t ask you to make the same compromises. Its top speed may be 90mph, but maintaining a decent motorway cruise is harder work in a Smart than in its rivals, and less relaxing too, because it’s badly affected by crosswinds.

Things don’t get much better in the diesel version – a 53bhp 0.8-litre three-pot. Even with more torque than the base petrol model (96lb ft compared with 68lb ft) it takes an age to get from zero to 62mph (16.8sec.)

Of just as much concern is the operation of its five-speed automated manual gearbox. Smart claims big improvements in shift speed and quality, but we didn’t find them, whether in full auto mode or when selecting gears ourselves.

There’s too much dead air between shifts, and because the Smart is light and has a large frontal area, it slows quickly when it is not under power, so it accelerates with a rather off-putting gentle bobbing motion.

Opt for the niche – and eye-wateringly expensive - 101bhp version of the petrol triple in the Brabus version and things do improve. It offers enough power and torque to allow the Fortwo to keep up better with traffic, particularly out of town. But again, it uses the same semi-automatic gearbox and this stifles progress.

RIDE & HANDLING

Smart Fortwo front quarter

Thanks in part to its 11mm-wider tracks and a wheelbase stretched by 55mm – and also to what feels like marginally softer suspension – Smart has remedied one of our biggest dynamic complaints about the previous-generation Smart ForTwo: its ride.

Whereas it was crashy and lacking pliancy before, it is now more forgiving and sophisticated in feel. What you’d kindly have described as ‘kart-like’ has been transformed this time round into something with half-decent bump absorption, at the expense of some fore/aft pitch. And although the ForTwo’s ride is still not as compliant or deft as its rivals’, speed ramps are no longer best taken at walking pace.

Smart’s longer rival, the Mitsubishi i, is more competent in wet and stable enough not to need ESP at all

What hasn’t changed so much is the feel of the ForTwo’s unassisted steering. As before, it’s accurate, and it improves on the old one by now being linear in response right from straight ahead. But it still feels a little dead and is too heavy at parking speeds. Power assistance is optional.

Handling? This is still a short car that depends on its brutal, if effective, stability control system and skinny front tyres to keep it on its wheels. Its bigger footprint and better suspension geometry improve stability – notably in crosswinds and the ‘wash’ of trucks on motorways. It still understeers, but front grip is now strong and predictable.

Attempt a high-speed lane change and the ForTwo’s standard, unswitchable ESP system simply will not have it. The thin-section front tyres lack the grip to make the manoeuvre and the stability control won’t help tuck the front in. Instead, its efforts are aimed at reducing roll-over.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Smart Fortwo 2007-2014

Where the Smart really does score is economy. Take the 58bhp 0.8 diesel model. It offers a claimed 85.6mpg combined, which isn’t an unattainable figure should you keep the Smart within its comfort zone. This, coupled with remarkable 86g/km CO2 emissions, make this particular Smart Fortwo a very enticing low-cost ownership proposition.

Economy and CO2 are also highlights across the rest of the range. The micro-hybrid (it gets a stop-start system) 70bhp petrol model boasts 67.3mpg and 97g/km. Even in the most potent 101bhp guise, it snakes under the crucial 120g/km tax threshold, with 119g/km emissions and respectable 54.3mpg economy.

The 85.6mpg Fortwo diesel has some of the most affordable running costs of any car

As well as its economy, insurance costs are low and residual values are respectable. Starting to sound like the perfect ownership proposition, right?

Right. Until you get to the price list. The most basic petrol-powered ForTwo can be had for £9200, but the Smart is now no longer alone in innovating in the segment, and many rivals offer much better interior space, clever packaging and, well, just fewer compromises for less money. We bet that Smart is particularly worried about the recent arrival of the Volkswagen Up and its Seat and Skoda siblings.

For the money, you are also nearing the more basic superminis. And it would certainly get you a car more suited to other types of driving than the urban ForTwo.

It’s also easy to get carried away with the price of a Fortwo. The range is topped by an eye-watering £15,000 petrol-powered Brabus Xclusive (or £16,500 for the cabriolet). This model isn’t likely to win any value awards.

VERDICT

2 star Smart Fortwo

The Smart ForTwo remains a unique proposition. Its emotional showroom appeal is unquestionable and unrivalled in this class, and that, a decade after its launch, is an achievement in itself. This is still one of the most novel, innovative and clever cars you can buy today.

The Smart is an easy car to use around town. Its steering could use a little help at very low speeds, but it’s a doddle to park, even if end-on street parking is not as easy as it used to be because of the increased length.

Visibility is hard to fault. The rear is so close to the back of your head that it’s easy to park

Smart marketing men claim theirs is a “special” car, not just an economy model. However, its price next to rivals is certainly enough to make you question how much you value the Smart's quirkiness, and how much you really need to be able to park perpendicularly to the kerb.

Although the latest model is improved over its predecessor, the flaws that prevent the ForTwo from being truly viable as everyday, every-road transport are still there. Its lack of urge, distaste for motorways and recalcitrant gearchange ask you to make compromises that rival cars don’t.

So the Smart proposition is the same as it always was. For being seen in, and for parking, there’s nothing that can touch it. If you want a piece of product design, its appeal is undimmed. But we can come up with five rivals we’d choose above the ForTwo on all-round ability. If you want a car, think about looking elsewhere.

Although Smart has greatly improved a very flawed original, this one won’t prevent people who don’t understand the ForTwo concept from continuing to blame the little car for lacking the road ability of a conventional family hatchback. For those who do, though, the Fortwo is now a really enticing – and much less compromised – option.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Smart Fortwo 2007-2014 First drives