The smart was so far ahead of the curve that it missed the ballgame when it launched here in 2003. Australians at that time weren't prepared to consider a micro car and it didn't emulate its European success, where the Merc-built model was a popular city commuter. Fast forward to 2011 and small cars are increasingly in vogue. So, is the two-seat runabout a smart choice now?
A $19,990 sticker price doesn't look like a smart buy in a market where the Holden Barina Spark, Suzuki Alto and Nissan Micra all undercut it by $7000 or more. And they have back seats and a boot. What the Smart does have is rear-wheel drive and the best fuel use of a conventional-engined car at 4.4 litres/100km and CO2 emissions of 100g/km. The limited edition "night orange" model seen here was a sellout, despite costing an extra $2800. In the UK, Aston Martin can't make enough of their Toyota iQ-based Cygnets, even at $55,000, so the re's definitely a market for upmarket city cars.
The fortwo is all about packaging. The 999cc three-cylinder engine is mounted directly above the rear wheels so the 200-litre boot is up front. The dash plastics are as good as anything in the class and the overall cabin quality feels better than its rivals, but so it should. The exterior shape is three years old but still edgier than anything else in this market and is a big part of the reason the Smart appeals to young Europeans, according to Mercedes.
The micro car concept is the gamechanger here. Mercedes had no competition when it launched this car in 1998. The design was widened and centre of gravity lowered when the Smart infamously failed a simulated rollover "moose test". It is the only car in this segment using an automated manual transmission but the five-speeder shifts slower than a politician in front of the cameras.
There's not much room for crumple zones in the fortwo. Instead, Mercedes developed the tridion safety cell, the black or silver bit that runs from the A pillar to the bottom on the doors. It is a triple-layered steel cell with sliding beams front and rear to absorb small impacts without damaging the cell itself. There are also four airbags and safety software you expect in small cars. EuroNCAP gave it four stars.
The Smart is great fun driving around town and acceptable on the freeway runs that connect the city to the 'burbs. Cross winds will push it around, but it is no worse than a high-riding SUV. What does hurt is the auto transmission. It's slow shifts exaggerate the car's habit of pitching forwards under a gearchange and then backwards as the drive engages. It is without peer in inner-city laneways and the tightest parking spot is yours for the taking, with little fear of door and/or panel damage.
The car that started the popular micro car trend is overpriced but a more engaging drive than some of its rivals. It was made for CBD owners and is an ideal city runabout. That's why VW is launching the Up .
Rating: three stars
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km
Resale: 55 per cent
Service intervals: 20,000km
Economy: 4.4 litres/100km (95 RON), 100g/km CO2
Equipment: Four airbags, ABS with EBD, traction control, hill start assist Crash rating: Four stars
Engine: 1.0-litre triple-cylinder, 52kW/92Nm
Transmission: Give-speed automated manual
Body: Two-door hatch
Dimensions: 2695mm (L), 1559mm (W), 1542mm (H), 1867mm (WB)
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
Rating: Two and a half stars
Engine: 1.0-litre triple-cylinder, 50kW/90Nm
Trans: Five-speed manual, four-speed auto, font-wheel drive
Body: Five-door hatch
Thirst: 4.7 litres/100km, 100g/km CO2
Practical transport but lacks Smart's style
Rating: Four stars
Engine:1.2-litre triple-cylinder, 56kW/100Nm
Trans: Five-speed manual, five-speed auto, front-wheel drive
Body: Five-door hatch
Thirst: 5.9 litres/100km, 138g/km CO2
Carsguide's pick of the light car brigade
Holden Barina Spark
Rating: Three stars
Engine: 1.2-litre four-cylinder, 59kW/107Nm
Trans: Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Body: Three-door hatch
Thirst: 5.6 litres/100km, 128g/km CO2
Good rather than great, but Holden badge is the clincher