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Smart City Coupe 2004 review: road test

It was developed as a Swatch for the world of wheels and aimed at youngsters who could see the potential for a compact runabout in the overcrowded cities of Europe.

Australia Smart was rejected twice before the booming DaimlerChrysler empire realised it could take a place Down Under, and that the baby brand would eventually become a full-line car company with solid youth support.

It probably also helped that private importers were bringing the phonebox-on-wheels Smart cars to Australia outside the official channels, and doing it at prices which were doing nothing for any long-term success. Too costly, basically.

Now we've been through the City coupe and cabrio start-up, with 58 sales through the first two months of 2004, and face the sporty Roadster.

This is the first car that puts Smart up against real rivals.

Honestly, there's nothing that competes with the City twins, which are so small they can be parked nose-first to the kerb without bumping into traffic. If you want a City car then that's what you get. Game over.

But the Roadster, even with a $37,990 bottom line and stand-out styling, will have to win customers against a wide range of rivals.

It still has only a 700cc suprex turbo engine, but the body has plenty of room for two, with a lift-out sunroof and plenty of equipment including airconditioning, alloy wheels, remote central locking and electric windows and mirrors.

Potential rivals are both sporty and trendy, since the Roadster will still be a fashion item for many owners.

So, though the Roadster looks a fair bit like a Lotus Elise, it will also be lined up against the VW Beetle cabrio, the Peugeot 206CC and even the really silly Daihatsu Copen.

It will also be shopped against the Toyota MR2, which has a similar objective but does it with more size and weight at a higher price.

The design of the Roadster is just what you'd expect for a sports car, with a low plastic body that's pulled tight around wheels at each corner.

It has some nice curves and the two-piece hardtop is intended to be stored in a shallow boot space behind the cabin and above the engine.

Smart makes a big deal about the car's rigid Tridion safety cell, with claims of superior crash protection.

The mechanical package starts with the 60kW engine paired with a sequential manual gearbox.

It is rear-wheel drive and Smart engineers have even put wider wheels on the tail to improve the cornering, which is controlled from electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering.

On the road

IF you jump into the Smart roadster expecting a full-on sports car experience then . . . well, you're going to be disappointed.

It's fun and functional but won't remotely keep pace with a Nissan 350Z. Smart says it takes 10.9 seconds to reach 100km/h and there are a lot of fairly ordinary family sedans that can do better.

But the roadster has a sharp edge and it looks really, really good.

You have to work hard – if you're beyond your 20s – to get down into the cabin, but it's a great fit and there is plenty to keep you entertained.

The seats are supportive, the wheel feels good and the design of the instruments shows a lot of smart thinking with a youthful twist.

The location of the key is a surprise, because it is tucked away on the centre column behind the gear lever. But it works well enough.

Turn the key and you hear a gruff little three-potter fire into action, right behind your head.

 

The sound performance includes a selection of chuffs and whistles and burps when you get going, and anyone who likes the blow-off whoosh of a Subaru WRX will enjoy the noise. We found it entertaining.

The Smart coupe is not all that powerful or swift, but it feels good as it gets along. There is good response, provided you're in the right gear, and you always feel that the car is keen to help.

The gearbox, though, is recalcitrant. If you use it manually it's slow to answer any commands, and completely ignores low-ratio demands by shifting up at the redline.

Not good if you're rushing between turns and want to hold a gear.

The automatic mode is also frustrating, with slow-pace shifts and a reluctant kickdown. We used it in city traffic, but Smart really needs to do some work to make it a better match for the rest of the Roadster package.

Smart says it revives the purist feel of an earlier era and that's true.

It feels shrink-wrapped around you and – a lot like the costlier Lotus Elise – you always know what's happening at the wheels.

It also encourages you to tackle a corner, any corner, with a quick flick on the wheel and plenty of throttle.

It has a good cornering balance and good grip. So it's an impressive chassis that also defeats most bumps, though it will crash through potholes and there is more noise from the chassis than we would like.

It's tough to rate the Roadster against rivals as a lot of people will buy it because they like the look.

It's tight on space and doesn't have much luggage capacity, but it is much nicer to drive than a Beetle Cabrio or a Peugeot 206CC.

It comes closest to the MR2 but has a much more focused feel.

As a stepping stone to the future, it also proves that Smart is more than just a telephone box on wheels.

Pricing Guides

$3,355
Based on third party pricing data
Lowest Price
$2,640
Highest Price
$4,070

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(base) 0.7L, PULP, 6 SP SEQ AUTO $2,640 – 4,070 2004 Smart City Coupe 2004 (base) Pricing and Specs
Pricing Guide

$2,640

Lowest price, based on third party pricing data

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