Eight years. That’s how long it has been since I drove a Smart ForTwo: the infamous city car born in collaboration between Swatch and Mercedes-Benz. I can still remember the weekend before I got it on test. It involved a rugby match at Ellis Park, sneaking into a corporate box suite and offensive levels of (free) alcohol consumption. Brilliant.
Through the haze of fragmented memories I can remember getting lost in a section of the stadium that was being rebuilt (or added on?) as well as merrily lobbing a bin bag full of empties down a stairwell at a friend. In among all the japes and hilarity I also managed to fall flat on my face, breaking my Wayfarer sunglasses and roasting the skin around my eye to a bloody, crimson crisp.
Now whether I have matured much since 2008 is debatable. The Smart ForTwo on the other hand certainly has. The second-generation model I drove back then felt like a final-year university engineering effort in personal mobility: clunky and compromised and somewhat rough around the edges. The automated manual transmission was diabolical, shunting your pip back against the headrest whenever you changed gears, and the ride quality was choppy.
Turn through a sharp, off-camber corner at any reasonable pace and you’d risk tipping onto two wheels à la Michael Cain in The Italian Job. There just seemed to be too many tradeoffs for the privilege of parking nose-to-kerb.
This time things are different. Besides being notably wider (11cm) the new ForTwo’s biggest conversation piece is its totally revised suspension system. I won’t bore you with the technical whys and wherefores — just know that it makes the car feel considerably better adhered to the asphalt. Particularly when it gets rough and bumpy, which, as we all know, is pretty damn often in Johannesburg. No longer does it feel like your spinal cord is going to catapult through the top of your skull every time you run over some undulations.
Handling? Don’t expect the ForTwo to set the racetrack alight but do expect it to respond to changes of direction better than it’s ever done before. Propulsion comes courtesy of a teeny three-cylinder engine and it is, as could be expected, underwhelming at best. The ForTwo is a momentum car: keep it on the boil and it’ll keep you happy. Get caught in stop/start traffic, particularly in a hilly part of the world, and the lack of torque will soon have you screaming obscenities at the twistable tachometer stuck atop the fabric dashboard.
The wider track is good for stability but also a boon for interior space. Indeed, travelling two-up in a ForTwo no longer feels like you’re rubbing thighs with a stranger in economy class. For such a tiny car there’s a surprising amount of room. Not to mention toys like lane-keeping assist, heated leather seats and cruise control.
Negatives? Well the Renault-sourced touchscreen infotainment system is, in the age-old French tradition, frustratingly temperamental and prone to hanging. The buttons on the multifunction steering wheel will turn up the volume but not skip tracks. And then there was the stop/start system that never seemed to work. Still, when it comes to manoeuvring through packed streets, pulling sneaky J-turns or squeezing into the smallest pockets of roadside real-estate, you momentarily forget these niggles because the ForTwo really is a champion of urban drudge work.
But here’s the thing: as novel and unique and refined as the latest ForTwo may be, I still think that it’s simply too niche for the South African market. Who can realistically own a two-seater hatchback with seriously limited luggage space as their primary means of transport? Unless you’re part of the moneyed elite and can afford to snap one up as a second or even third car, the baby Smart remains something of a selfish indulgence.
So my reservations remain. Especially now that there are cars like the five-door Volkswagen Up! that merge similar usability with added practicality and lower price. Yep, the smartest thing you can do is to shop elsewhere. – Thomas Falkiner
Fast Facts: Smart ForTwo Prime
Engine: 999c three-cylinder petrol
Power: 52kW at 6000rpm
Torque: 91Nm at 2850rpm
Transmission: five-speed manual
0-100km/h: 14.4 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 151km/h (claimed)
Fuel: 6.7l/100km (achieved)
CO2: 93g/km (claimed)
Price: From R203 400