IN 1998, the company behind Mercedes-Benz brought out a car that became as instantly recognisable as any other vehicle since the Mini.
The smart car had funky looks unlike anything else and, when it arrived in the UK in 2000, it initiated the trend for the tiny city cars which are now coming at us from all angles.
Renamed the fortwo in 2005 to differentiate it from smart’s later, larger models, the iconic two-seater has been a hit, selling 770,000 models in 36 countries.
Which could be a stumbling block now, nine years later, because as every record producer knows, it’s difficult to follow a smash hit debut.
This summer smart releases the all-new fortwo. Redesigned and updated for the now-established 21st century, it has an awful lot to live up to.
It’s no great surprise then that smart has played it safe with the look of the new car.
The company’s press blurb calls it ‘the evolution of an icon’ – cynics will say they’ve simply tweaked a few lines. Like the latest incarnation of the MINI, it’s pretty similar to its predecessor. New headlights and a slightly more dynamic air to it are the major differences externally, but are hard to spot unless parked next to the old car.
But beneath the superficial similarities, plenty of work has been done. For a start, the new fortwo is bigger than its predecessor. It has a longer wheelbase and a larger body, which means more room inside. The revised dimensions have, according to smart, given the latest model a more ‘masculine’ appearance.
Being fun to drive was never one of the original fortwo’s great strengths and the engineers have sought to redress that. Revised geometry, extensive changes to suspension and a wider rear track aim to reduce the nervous handling of the previous car at higher speeds.
Inside, the 19.5cm increase in length means 80 litres more boot space than before, up to 340 litres if you pile your luggage up to the roof.
The curved dash of the original fortwo has gone, replaced with a straight line towards the passenger side – a necessary change to comply with safety regulations in the US, where smart hopes to make an impression with an increasingly environmentally-minded public.
The tiny 660cc engine of the original fortwo has been jettisoned in favour of a comparatively massive 1.0-litre, three-cylinder petrol unit developed with Mitsubishi and available in three states of tune. Drivers can choose from a 61bhp, 71bhp or 84bhp turbo, all of which produce less than 120g/km of CO2, rendering them free from the London congestion charge when the proposed eligibility changes come into effect in 2009.
Top speeds for all models are limited to 90mph. A hardcore Brabus-tuned version of the car will be announced at the Geneva Motor Show next month.
The 45bhp diesel engine available in Europe will not be offered in the UK. Smart says this is because the petrol models already fall inside the congestion-charge-free criteria and that demand for a car that hits 60 in almost 20 seconds is likely to be minimal.
Also, in order to recoup the excess purchase price, the fortwo CDI would have to cover 60,000 miles – a long way for a car aimed at predominantly urban environments.
All the engines are mated to a new automated manual five-speed gearbox, featuring a shift time reduced by 50% – the jerky six-speed transmission was a key complaint about the old car.
An electric version of the existing fortwo is already being offered in very limited numbers for lease to large fleets interested in the technology.
Engineered with British company Saitek, smart hopes a full electric production version of the new car will be on sale by 2011.
Safety-wise, the fortwo comes with ABS and ESP and is the only car in its class to feature brake assist. It also packs optional head and thorax airbags in the sides of the seats.
Service intervals have been widened to 25,000 miles for the 71bhp engine – intervals for the rest of the range will be announced later in the year.
Smart expects the fleet appeal of the fortwo to fall into a niche.
Dermot Kelly, managing director of Mercedes Car Group UK, said: ‘The fleet element for fortwo has been particularly specialised. We haven’t really split the corporate volume at this stage – we’re focusing predominantly on retail. The car will fulfil certain commercial functions and targeting at fleets will be done as part of the Mercedes group marketing team’s responsibilities.’
Official UK prices will be announced in June but expect it to cost from £6,840 for the base-level Pure spec car up to £8,960 for the top-of-the-range Passion model, featuring alloy wheels, electric windows, sun roof and air-conditioning.
A cabriolet will also be offered and is expected to make up a third of the overall sales. The fortwo will go on sale on September 15.
Behind the wheel
I DROVE the 84bhp turbo model at the launch and also had a chance to take a spin in the outgoing model.
The differences back-to-back are immediately apparent. Where the old model felt nervous out of its native urban environment, the changes made to the new fortwo make for a much more confidence-inspiring drive on faster roads.
No longer does it twitch above 40mph and the ride over less-than-perfect surfaces is much smoother.
The original, frankly terrible gearbox has been consigned to history, with a much smoother semi-automatic transmission.
The mid-range Pulse car we drove did not have the optional paddle-shifters (standard in the Passion) but the stick-shift was more than acceptable.
The standard mechanical steering offers plenty of feedback, but the feeble-armed will be pleased to know that power steering will be available as an option and is likely to be of particular appeal to those opting for the larger 16-inch alloys.
On the motorway, the road noise gets a little loud in the cabin, but generally the comfort levels have been upped. The extra room inside really tells – there’s plenty of passenger legroom even for a six-footer like me – and although it has clearly been built to a budget, the quality of the dash materials is good.
SMART has taken on board criticisms of the original model. Comfort levels have been upped and the fortwo offers a decent drive, but keeps its ubiquitous agility around town. Widened service intervals will appeal to fleets, as will the promise of congestion-charge-free driving.
|Model||1.0 60||1.0 70||1.0 turbo|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||61/5,800||71/5,800||84/5,250|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||66/3,000||68/4,500||92/3,250|
|Max speed (mph):||90||90||90|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||60.1||60.1||57.6|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||112||112||116|
|On sale:||September 15|