The leap of faith needed to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in such a radical and risky manufacturing project is something few would relish.
As motoring expert Tony Lewis reveals in his book ‘smart thinking’, from the initial spark of an idea put forward by Nicolas Hayek, the man behind the Swatch phenomenon that rejuvenated the Swiss watch industry, to the first car’s launch in 1998 ‘it seemed as if no-one had taken the trouble to ask whether buyers actually wanted a car like the smart’.
But despite troubled beginnings, the two-door model has flourished, thanks to a commitment to innovation and ‘fun’, with a growing range of variants and specifications building a growing fan base.
Indeed, the smart owners’ club is now the second biggest in the UK, with 20,000 members, behind the MG owners’ club – quite a feat for such a young company.
Now smart is taking a new leap of faith, with a major expansion into mainstream four-door supermini territory, offering the brand to hundreds of thousands of drivers and a large swathe of the fleet market.
The new forfour, which shares many of its underpinnings with the Mitsubishi Colt following a joint venture on model development, conveniently brings with it four firsts for the smart brand.
It is the first smart with four seats and five-doors, the first smart with a diesel engine in the UK, the first smart to feature a manual gearbox and the first time the firm has started to advertise on terrestrial television.
Cars are already reaching Britain’s roads, after it went on sale on September 1, with prices starting at £7,995. It comes with five engine options, including two diesels. The entry-level engine is a 1.1-litre three-cylinder petrol engine, offering 75bhp.
Two four-cylinder petrol engines are available, with a 1.3-litre offering 95bhp and the 1.5-litre producing 109bhp.
The new three-cylinder diesel engines, built by Mercedes-Benz, start with a 1.5-litre 68bhp variant, while the high-power version produces 95bhp.
All the models are Euro IV compliant and sit comfortably in the lowest tax band, while emissions for the diesels are so low in automatic form that they qualify for a special writing-down allowance of 100% in the first year.
For those wanting more power, a 180bhp Brabus version is in the pipeline, while a new base model with 66bhp will also be offered.
Power is transferred through a five-speed manual gearbox as standard, while a six-speed clutchless manual, which offers automatic or semi-automatic mode, is available as a cost option.
The smart DNA is clearly visible in the forfour, including the safety cell, surrounding its doors, enhanced by a two-tone colour scheme, with removable plastic panels allowing for the car to be given a fresh tone when the owner wishes.
This is carried through to the inside, where the interior makes a refreshing change from some of the more bland supermini competition in the market.
The eye-catching dashboard is wrapped in fabric, as are many of the door panels, while the instruments are housed in two stand-alone pods behind the steering wheel.
High equipment levels and a focus on innovation have been clear development targets, with a sliding rear bench and split rear seats that fold, tumble and recline, meaning the luggage compartment can grow from 270 litres to 910 litres.
Electronic Stability Programme is standard, along with ABS brakes.
Full size front and side airbags come as standard for driver and passenger, while additional window bags can be fitted as an option.
There is a lengthy options list, including a lounge concept, which means the backrests of the front seats can be folded down to create two tables.
Lounge pads extend the rear seat bench trim at the sides and there is an optional folding rotating armrest, which has cupholders on one side and a storage compartment on the other. It can be folded for use by either front or rear seat passengers.
Trim levels start with the entry-level black edition for launch. Pulse and Passion trims from the fortwo are carried over and there is a panoramic twin glass sunroof. An electric glass sunroof comes as an option.
Smart executives aren’t discussing sales figures, but estimates suggest the introduction of forfour should lift sales for the rest of the year to about 15,000, a 15% rise for the smart brand.
Fleet sales are clearly being considered. Estimates of how many will go to business customers are difficult to define, but could settle at between 15% and 25%.
Behind the wheel
WHEN the first two-door smarts rolled on to the streets during their press launch in Spain, one journalist wrote that ‘all who did that trip noticed how the crowds appeared to welcome the smarts’.
And that certainly seems to ring true with the forfour. You feel less anonymous than you might do in some other superminis and constantly provoke turned heads and quick glances as you drive. Despite the different looks, great effort seems to have gone into getting quality right for such an important expansion to the brand.
The doors, although they feel very light, shut with a satisfying thunk, switchgear is all within easy reach, and although there are some hard plastics on show, they don’t cheapen the interior and are not flimsy.
Drivers are supported by a well-bolstered seat, although back adjustment is by a release lever, rather than a more accurate dial, so getting a comfortable position might take some trial and error. The material covering the dashboard and doors seems hard-wearing, but could be prone to scuffing and damage by careless owners.
Space front and rear is good, although with the sliding bench there is a compromise between very good legroom and a small boot, or merely adequate legroom and more luggage space.
The manual gearbox is light and quick to change, although the throw is quite long, while the clutch is easy and light. The performance of the clutchless manual varies depending on which engine is fitted. Changes under hard-acceleration are a jerky affair and it can catch you out by swapping cogs mid-corner, but that can be controlled by switching to the manual gearchange option.
I also found the ‘creep’ programme in town left the petrol engines struggling and the transition from crawl to stop was quite sudden when applying the brakes.
The 1.1-litre engine was an aural delight, offering ‘half a Porsche’ soundtrack, and flexible if sedate performance, while at idle its lumpy tickover rumbled through the car.
The larger petrol engines were quieter at cruising speed, with the 1.3-litre still audible, despite significant wind noise, while the 1.5-litre was less sonorous, while also offering better torque to reduce gear changing.
The two three-cylinder diesels are essentially the same unit with some engine management fiddling, but the lower-power variant proved the quieter option, although both rumbled through the car at tickover.
Around town, there is little to choose between them, but on the open road, the extra torque and horsepower of the more powerful engine made it happier cruising on the motorway, particularly when it came to adding speed for overtaking.
Given the choice and considering prices, the 1.1-litre combines the best true smart DNA and low running costs. But for company car drivers, the diesel variants offer a tempting low tax option that performs better on the motorway.
For lovers of the smart brand, it is the perfect way to grow up, while as a fleet option, it could be a surefire way to liven up the vehicle list for user-choosers.
|Max power (bhp):||75/6,000||95/6,000||109/6,000||68/4,000||95/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft):||74/3,500||92/4,000||107/4,000||118/1,600||155/1,800|
|Max speed (mph):||103||112||118||99||112|
|Combined fuel consumption (mpg):||51.4||48.7||46.3||61.4||61.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||130||138||145||121||121|
|Prices (OTR):||£7,995 - £12,370|