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smart roadster/roadster coupe

Smart

Review

The small roadster of the 1950s and 60s is back – and it's a beauty. Although the smart roadster and roadster coupe won't suit every company car park, they will certainly attract a healthy dose of fleet interest from user-choosers and firms looking for a way to grab attention from potential customers.

I wouldn't expect to see an engineer outside my office in one, but an estate agent working for a modern and trendy house seller would definitely look the part.

Jeremy Simpson reckons the car is the most engaging he has ever driven. OK, he would say that, because as head of smart he runs the UK side of the business. But even in this capacity it's a bold claim to make in front of some of the country's top motoring journalists who were given the chance to drive the car in the Algarve. The final proof, of course, will be how many units smart can shift in the UK. But Simpson has a point.

Executives anticipate that by the end of the year they will have sold between 2,000 and 3,000 models – an impressive achievement considering the cars don't reach UK showrooms until September. Advance orders, helped along by last year's debut at the British International Motor Show, total more than 600.

Simpson suggests a sales figure of about 7,000 units for next year. That figure is the market average for the segment and would double total smart sales.

'We are arriving in this market at exactly the right time,' he said. 'It's in the lowest taxable bracket for company car tax and it is born into a successful family of vehicles that promise thrills which won't get the attention of speed cameras.'

Smart plans to increase sales to businesses and its cars are promoted as part of a multi-brand offering alongside its bigger Mercedes-Benz brothers. To prove fleets will play a part in its sales success, smart will sell you tailored luggage including suit carrier and laptop computer bag to go with your roadster coupe.

But when the eager driver arrives at the showroom to look at his or her potential purchase, one of the biggest hurdles facing the brand appears – the price. Right-hand drive models will be available with a 698cc, 80bhp engine costing £13,495 on-the-road for the roadster and £14,495 for the roadster-coupe. Just to put that in perspective, you could have a Mazda6 for the same money, or a high-specification Ford Focus.

Many industry commentators had hoped the entry-level model would be priced at around the £12,000 mark, so the question is whether or not the brand is strong enough to justify the price. Mercedes-Benz thinks so, calling the models part of a premium small car brand. Also, many point out that the price buys a two-seat Mercedes-Benz sports car.

Standard specification on the new smart includes an electrically-operated soft-top, six-spoke 15-inch alloy wheels, driver and passenger airbags, six-speed SOFTIP sequential transmission, power steering, radio/CD player and leather steering wheel and gearknob.

The coupe adds a two-piece removable hard top, with the soft-top available as an option, air-conditioning, additional storage space, silver trim on components and a centre armrest. Ahead of the B-pillar you'll find the roadster and coupe are identical. For fleets wanting the extra storage area in the coupe, it almost has a respectable boot compared to the roadster's shelf.

Andreas Renschler, executive vice-president Mercedes-Benz Car Group, business unit smart, said: 'The smart roadster and smart roadster-coupe signal the launch of our second model range and the first milestone of our product offensive. Following our specialist cars for urban environments, we are now offering a smart idea for the open road.

'The cars are reviving an unforgettable market segment which has regrettably disappeared. Who could fail to recall the emotional roadsters of the 1950s and 60s – the Austin Healey 'Frogeye' Sprite, the classic MGA or the Triumph Spitfire? They were roadsters which focused on pure unadulterated driving pleasure in close touch with nature, rather than on comfort.'

Drivers eager for this brand of wind-in-the-hair, flies-in-the-teeth motoring will have to wait until September for right-hand drive models.

However, smart is bringing in some left hookers that will be available in June with either a 698cc, 80 bhp engine, costing from £12,495 for the roadster and an extra £1,000 for the roadster coupe. There will also be an entry-level left-hand drive model with 61bhp, which comes at a cut-price £9,995, but this will not be available in right hand drive format.

Behind the wheel

The smart roadster is a fabulously cool car – and one that will turn heads everywhere. It will look great darting along country lanes and will cause other motorists to rubber-neck when stuck in inner city traffic.

It's not throw-your-head-back fast but performance is still pretty impressive, with the 0-62mph time of 10.2 seconds feeling faster than it looks on paper.

And the roar of the engine as you depress the accelerator sounds fabulous and makes up for what it lacks in speed, while its go-kart handling also makes up for its lack of grunt.

The biggest downside is the sequential manual gearbox. You can leave it to change gear as a standard automatic or there is a semi-auto gear lever that you push up or down. Thirdly, you have the option of Formula One-style paddles on the steering wheel.

However you use it, though, there is a delay between gear changes which is annoying.

Driving verdict

It's definitely going to be a summer for roadsters and the smart faces competition from the likes of Ford's StreetKa, and established favourites such as the Mazda MX5, Toyota MR2 and the Peugeot 206cc.

But the smart's futuristic styling, normally exclusive to concept cars that never see the light of day, ensures it stands out from the ever-growing crowd. It is expensive but affluent youngsters with enough spare cash for a second car will lap it up, I'm sure. Expect a trendy young company near you to put in a few orders too.

Model: smart roadster/ roadster coupe
Engine (cc): 698cc
Power (bhp/rpm): 80/5,250
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 81/2,250
Max speed (mph): 108
0-62mph (sec): 10.9
Fuel economy (mpg): 55.4
C02 emissions (g/km): 122
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 35/7.7
Transmission: 6-sp seq man
On sale: September
Prices (OTR): Roadster - £13,495. Roadster-Coupe - £14,495

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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