The smart forfour brings some overdue charm and character to the small car class. It looks sharp and drives well. It has instant street cred, it's practical and it's fun.
Weighing in at under 1000kg, fine-tuned for a sporting drive and with individual style, the smart forfour is no average small car.
And for a cute, five-door European machine, to be bought and serviced alongside the local Mercedes-Benz dealer, the $23,990 starting price is a fair deal.
That money buys the 1.3-litre, five-speed manual version. The 1.5-litre machine starts at $25,990. The six-speed auto option costs $1035.
The price here is leaner than in Europe, to give this "premium" light car a better chance in a hot market of compact Japanese and European rivals.
Yet Australian targets are small with 300 forfours expected to be sold in the next 12 months. An expected 600 smarts – forfours, cabrios, coupes and roadsters will be sold in 2005; the two-door smart fortwo now starts at $19,990.
There are a couple of questions over this fresh smart. The ride can be sharpish over small road lumps – like cat's eyes – and the "soft touch" automatic transmission can be occasionally be a tad hesitant on changes.
But there is much to like, not the least its high-spirited engine, chassis balance and excellent fuel economy.
This front-wheel drive smart forfour arrives with a raft of safety, comfort and convenience features.
Standard gear for Australian cars includes 15-inch alloy wheels, airconditioning, CD player and electric front windows. Options include the six-speed automated gearbox, the choice of two sun-roofs, a six-stack CD player and a navigation system.
Clever inside touches include the 21st century trim and style, fresh and natty dashboard and instruments, plus a rear seat which can be slid forward and back for extra rear luggage or back seat space.
There are driver and passenger airbags, electronic stability program, ABS with brake force assist and disc brakes all around.
Much of the electric and electronic systems are borrowed from its big brother, Mercedes-Benz.
And some components, such as the rear axle, five-speed gearbox and petrol engines, are shared with Mitsubishi's new Colt, also built under the DaimlerChrysler umbrella.
But the smart forfour sets its own agenda.
The engines have higher compression ratios for more power over the Colt, there is a different chassis and there is that 'tridion' safety cell, highlighted by the choice of three different colours on this exposed body frame.
Combine that with 10 different body colours and there are 30 combinations – from classic styles to bright and breezy combinations – to choose from.
The forfour has a road presence that breaks the current mould for small cars.
On the road there is good accommodation for four adults and maybe a slab of beer in the boot. Head and leg-room are good front and back, although taller occupants need to bend their head a little below the curved roof line.
The alternative is to shift the back seat forward to accommodate two adults, two kids and a weekend's gear.
The driving position is good. Sitting a little high, there is good visibility and the instruments, including trip computer, are all easily read.
Both motors fire with enthusiasm and do not mind running hard to the 6000rpm redline.
The "soft-touch", six-speed auto option works best with the floor-mounted stick shift. The optional paddles on the steering wheel column appear to take a little longer to find the next ratio.
Wound up and running, the smart forfour is an entertaining drive.
The turn-in to corners is positive, even if the electric steering can sometimes feel a touch soft on straight sections of road.
There is little hint of under-steer, perhaps that arrives with higher velocities. The 1.3-litre is claimed to jump from 0 to 100km/h in 10.8 seconds and run to 180km/h; the 1.5-litre car takes 9.8 seconds to hit 100km/h and tops out at 190km/h.
At all legal speeds, the 2500mm wheelbase smart is well-balanced, with decent grip all around from 15-inch rubber.
Ride quality is good for a small, light car with limited suspension travel. Even the sharpness over small edges and bumps does not upset the car's balance or body, although it can be heard and felt on rougher patches.
For the most part, the smart's suspension and balance are smooth, supple and encouraging. This may not be a Lotus Elise but the smart forfour has that type of exuberant road manner.
And pushing along through town and over the hills in a 1.5-litre, six-speed auto smart forfour saw average fuel consumption just over seven litres per 100km.
The 1.5-litre pushes out 80kW, the 1.3-litre engine has 70kW. Both are more than adequate with two adults aboard.
And for an extra $2620, there is a sports suspension package with 16-inch wheels.
The smart forfour is a somewhat rare, good-looking compact with style, substance and soul.
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