It's bigger and bolder than before, but is this new city car any better?

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Mercedes-Benz’s 21st century vision for urban mobility, the Smart Fortwo, has now reached its difficult teenage years.

Entering its third model generation and closing in on its third decade on general sale, the car is approaching a crucial stage in its history. It’s time to mature, to deliver, or risk deletion.

The tie-up with Renault is mostly a rewarding one for Smart

Despite being probably the most daring exponent of compact car design in the past 40 years, the Fortwo has failed to emulate the phenomenal success of the original Mini and Fiat 500 – the cars whose standards of compactness, space efficiency and urban manoeuvrability it sought to better back in 1998.

Now available in nearly 50 countries, the Fortwo has stagnating sales of 100,000 units a year, having been in decline since 2004.

There’s evidently a limited supply of customers willing pay a premium for a 2.7-metre-long two-seater, and this explains why Daimler has broadened the Smart line-up to include a successor to the four-door, four-seat Smart Forfour.

There’s also a lingering feeling that the Fortwo still hasn’t tapped that seam of supply as well as it should have, failing to present the benefits of ultra-compactness without also imposing too many undesirable compromises.

This time, things may be different – and not least because, this time, Daimler isn’t the only firm putting its cash on the line. The third-generation Fortwo has been developed in an industry-standard joint venture with Renault and is closely related to the latest Renault Twingo.

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However, whereas the Twingo and its Forfour sister are built at Renault’s Novo Mesto factory in Slovenia, the shorter Fortwo stays on at Smart’s production base in Hambach, France.

The same length as the old Fortwo, the new version is faster and wider and has standard power steering, an overhauled chassis and a normal manual gearbox. Could that be all it needs to make the world truly appreciate it?



Smart Fortwo rear

Our starting point here is something that hasn’t changed. After taking flak in 2007 when it added a few inches to the Smart Fortwo’s kerbside presence for the second generation, Daimler has left the overall length just as it was for the Mk1, at a smidgen under 2.7m.

There are plenty of advantages to such a small car, most of them much greater and more meaningful, and many of them developed even further with this version of the Fortwo. The car is wider than it was, with 100mm added to both tracks for better steering response. A redesign of the front suspension has allowed the maximum steering angle to increase to 51deg and the turning circle to drop to just 7.3m wall to wall (down from 8.7m).

The lower portion of the tailgate can handle up to 100kg, which makes it an open-air seat for anyone not of rugby player proportions

The car’s basic construction hasn’t changed. A ‘safety cell’ monocoque forms the fundamental shape, made from various grades of high-strength steel, with the engine and gearbox packaged under the boot floor.

Some of the Fortwo’s plastic body panels have been sacrificed, though, and the overall kerb weight has increased to 880kg – or more than 900kg if you opt for the two-pedal auto. That seems heavy for a strict two-seater, but the proof will be sampled later.

Whereas early examples of the original Smart City Coupé used transverse leaf spring suspension for packaging reasons, this one has a de Dion driven axle at the rear and a new system of MacPherson struts up front, both attached to the body via coil springs and twin-tube dampers.

Longer springs have been adopted for a smoother town ride, as well as tyres with a bit more bump-absorbing sidewall than before. The wheels and tyres continue to be of mixed width, with 5.0in rims fitted to the front axle and 5.5in rims on the back, to help ensure a stability-enhancing handling bias for understeer.

Smart can no longer claim that this has anything to do with reducing steering effort levels at parking speeds, though, because electrically assisted variable-ratio power steering is now fitted across the range.

Smart’s 70bhp, 999cc three-cylinder petrol engine is carried over, with Renault’s 898cc, 89bhp TCe turbo triple supplying a more powerful alternative . We’re testing the Renault engine, but because of the increased kerb weight, it’s fitted to a car with a poorer power-to-weight ratio than the outgoing 83bhp, 780kg Fortwo.

There’s a range-topping Brabus version too, offering 19bhp increase as well as a suite of styling adornments and chassis upgrades.  And for those looking for some fresh air, the Fortwo Cabrio was added at the beginning of 2016. Costing £2140 more than the hard-top, the canvas roofed version uses the same engine range and goes from closed to open in 12 seconds at any speed.

Also of note is the junking of Smart’s risible robotised manual gearbox. In its place a five-speed manual gearbox is standard, while a six-speed ‘twinamic’ dual-clutch automatic is an option.


Smart Fortwo interior

The Smart Fortwo’s innards are a pleasant enough return to the kind of funky look conveyed by the original Smart.

Pods – most obviously in the shape of the speedometer, rev counter and air vents – make a welcome comeback and, together with the white-on-black trim of our test car and floating infotainment display, give the car a happy, almost Pixar-like presence.

We rather like the quality of the heater switchgear. The temperature dial on the front of it is a nice detail, too.

Some of the plastics, particularly on the centre console, aren’t of a terrifically high standard, but city car buyers are unlikely to make a fuss about that. Instead, they are likely to appreciate the naturally high seating position (you almost step up into a Fortwo), the clever use of mesh-like fabric trim on the dashboard and the surprisingly decent sense of space that’s afforded by the high roofline.

Although putting someone in the passenger seat is still liable to take the edge off that perception, the extra width is appreciated – especially if your companion has broad shoulders. A certain amount of cosiness is expected, though, and there are now Isofix mountings on the passenger seat, should you wish to share the car with a much smaller occupant.

The instrument cluster is not so much dominated by its speedo as by the smaller, 3.5in, screen that appears below it, a Mercedes display chiefly concerned with preaching the benefits of economical driving. The steering wheel is nicely proportioned but perhaps dotted with a few too many buttons for our liking.

There really is precious little aft of the two seats. Boot space to the window line has apparently increased by 40 litres and is easily accessed by the upper portion of the familiar twin-section tailgate.

Lowering the rest of it is likely to remain a rare occurrence for Fortwo owners, although with the passenger seatback folded forward, there is at least the potential for loading items that are marginally larger than supermarket shopping bags.

As for standard equipment, there are four trims to choose from – Passion, Prime, Prime Sport and Brabus Sport.

All Smart Fortwos come with cruise control, crosswind assist, hill start assist, climate control, and Bluetooth and USB connectivity as standard.

Choose the entry-level Passion model and the Smart gets some nifty extras including 15in alloy wheels and a black radiator grille, while upgrading to Prime adds heated seats, a grab handle and sunglasses holder.

The Prime Sport trimmed models gain 16in alloy wheels, chrome exhaust and stainless steel pedals. The range-topping Brabus Sport models are only available with the Renault turbocharged engine and includes 16in front alloy wheels and 17in rear alloy wheels, sports suspension and an aggressive bodykit.

The trim levels are exactly the same for the cabrio versions of the Fortwo too, while optional equipment is limited to mainly two packs – Comfort and Premium equipment trims.

The former adds heated wing mirrors and height adjustable steering wheel and driver’s seat, while the latter includes all the equipment added by the Comfort Package. Plus rear parking sensors and a 7.0in infotainment system complete with sat nav and smartphone integration.


Smart Fortwo front quarter

Previous versions of the Smart Fortwo have been found guilty of trying our patience. Glacial 0-60mph times in cars well shy of one tonne and three metres are not only frustratingly counter-intuitive but also severely limit the usability of some Fortwos beyond the city centre.

The model tested, admittedly more powerful than the entry engine, no longer labours under this description. Although we couldn’t replicate a possibly rather optimistic 0-60mph time of 10.4sec in poor conditions, the 11.2sec the test car managed was sufficient for it to make the national limit an easily achievable speed rather than a distant target.

Unlike its predecessors, the new Smart Fortwo no longer has a glacial 0-60mph time

Achieving it, though, is not as pleasurable as it might have been. Smooth acceleration, particularly when requested in a forceful manner from low revs, seems beyond the blown three-pot engine. The response briefly stuck somewhere between a throttle flat spot and a winded turbocharger.

Consequently, there are times when the Fortwo, for all its implied peppiness, reacts in a rather more suety manner than the one you would experience in, say, a Volkswagen Up. This impression isn’t helped by the gearing on the manual five-speed ’box, which, at a standard 40-50mph A-road clip, tends to leave the car rather breathless in its top cog.

However, the length of its ratios means that motorway journeys previously dreaded by some Smart owners are now well within the new Fortwo’s capabilities. With 30-70mph achieved in 11.4sec, the car is more than 3.5sec quicker than the Volkswagen Up 1.0 we tested.

It doesn’t have to work quite so hard to maintain the legal limit, either, although you’d hardly know it; the rear-engined Smart is still unwelcomingly rowdy at 70mph.


Smart Fortwo side profile

Fundamental to its enhanced ability to sustain a cruise is the Smart Fortwo’s ride quality, which has been on a gentle upward curve since the critical mauling the original car endured upon its introduction.

The new suspension, aided by the extended travel of the springs, continues the trend, being obliging enough for you to no longer pay it any mind (a considerable advance on the pained grimace the model once induced) once you’re over the fact that a model with a 1.8m wheelbase is never going to settle with quite the same elan as its more conventional city car rivals.

This feels like a car engineered to produce only a limited amount of grip at the front end

Its advantage over them, rather plainly, remains more in the parking than the driving. The marginally larger dimensions have not dulled its obvious forte. In fact, the outlandish ability of the front wheels to now turn even closer to right angles has made executing impromptu U-turns and inching out of tight spaces even easier still.

Squeezing into them is not what you’d call demanding, either, what with each corner of the car being virtually within touching distance of an outstretched hand (making a nonsense of the rear-view camera fitted to our test car).

The car’s ability to nestle swiftly into very tight gaps ought not to be underestimated. Buyers, after all, expect the Fortwo to be supremely wieldy. However, where the best of the opposition combine their agility with a cocky sense of can-do fun out of town, the Smart’s incisiveness still feels robotic at speed.

Much of that is to do with the steering, which, although better weighted than the Renault Twingo’s, is still utterly uncommunicative beyond very low speeds. Really, though, it’s about the car’s innate imbalance: the burdened rear end, the unweighted front and the dearth of space between them.

It’s impossible to lean on the self-limiting chassis with any real confidence, and although it’s probably better anchored than it has ever been, as a pleasure to drive, the car still never gets beyond the benignly acceptable.


Smart Fortwo

The Smart Fortwo wouldn’t be a well-priced city car even if it had four seats. Prices start from just over £11k for an entry-level 1.0-litre car – which you could spend on a very nice five-door Volkswagen Up in pretty rich specification and still make a relative saving on your insurance compared with the Smart.

Worthy of note also is that the Smart Forfour, which sacrifices that fabled maneuverability in favour of two extra seats, only costs another £495.

We baulk at paying £14,500 for a Smart, but the advantages of the trim level do make it nicer to live with

The automatic gearbox is offered on 1.0-litre cars only, at a premium of £995. Turbo-engined Fortwos start at just under £12k, rising to a whisker under £14k for the Premium Plus specifications – and you’ve still got to spend another £900 on that if you want everything on the options list.

People will, of course, because to plenty of Smart buyers there’s simply no competition, but if you’re the sort of person who questions whether your 2.7m city car really needs stainless steel sports pedals or leather upholstery with white stitching, you’re probably not part of the intended buyer demographic.

Even the faithful will be interested in the Fortwo’s fuel economy, though, and in our hands it fell well short of the 67.3mpg average claimed by Daimler. Admittedly, that evidence is anecdotal. The 43.1mpg average was recorded from the trip meter because the True MPG testing kit was foiled by the Smart’s incredibly hot exhaust gases.

However, given that this figure included significant motorway time, we’d be willing to bet that 67mpg would be extremely hard to achieve in the real world.

For those particularly worried about running costs, all three Smart models – Fortwo, Fortwo Cabrio and Forfour – will get Electric Drive versions with a range of just under 100 miles around summer 2017. 



3 star Smart Fortwo

Only the harshest of critics would refuse to concede that the Smart Fortwo has been made broadly better.

The playful interior, improved ride quality and better tractability have nudged the car towards an everyday, every-setting usability that would be alien to those who took the concept to their hearts in the late 1990s.

Now better than ever before, but still not quite good enough

Yet it feels as though that audience is being better served rather than a new one courted. Within the confines of its niche, the Fortwo remains fundamentally unchallenged.

However, broaden your requirements by only a fraction (certainly on practicality, price or pleasurability) and the latest generation of city cars romps unceremoniously past it.

Preferable though it may be to all the versions that have gone before it, the Fortwo remains a car to covet for its defining feature rather than a maturing product waiting to be rewarded for superior all-round quality.


Smart Fortwo 2015-2019 First drives