A certain retailer released a line of miniature household items some months ago. The ensuing frenzy taught us that mundane objects can be endearing and novel when they are shrunken.
I learnt this when I went dress-shopping for little Isabella, the newest addition to the Naidu family. Even the hardest heart cannot help but fawn and coo over tiny sneakers for baby feet.
And the dainty pair posing in front of a graffiti-splashed background this week elicit a similar feeling — although you might retort that for roughly the same price as these boutique hatchbacks, you could hop into a roomier and more substantial B-segment car.
Fair enough, but how interesting would life be if everyone drove a Hyundai i20 or Toyota Corolla? I suppose we will leave that one to the civil servants of Tshwane.
Anyway, back to the battle of the dwarfs.
Volkswagen launched the Up (we took a decision to omit the silly exclamation mark in its title) in February last year. There may have been concerns that it was going to supplant the Polo Vivo in success, but that was not the case because the Up caters for a different buyer.
Earlier this year a five-door derivative joined the fray, including a model with a quasi-off-road persona, which we have here. Mercedes-Benz relaunched the Smart brand in South Africa with new versions of the micro ForTwo and slightly larger ForFour. A jazzy image, lively marketing campaign and keen finance incentives are part of the approach to inveigle hip young upstarts.
From a styling point of view, the Smart cuts a more dazzling profile. Especially in this guise, boasting wheels with a spider-web design, black paint and a contrasting red outline. Not to discredit the Volkswagen, however: a simple shape and clean lines are the hallmarks of many iconic designs. Perhaps it is no coincidence that some think the Up resembles an iPod on wheels.
Affordable, cheerful cars represent the essence of motoring. The Up and ForFour are antitheses to the heavy, gadget-laden offerings that define the contemporary car scene. Not that we are bemoaning progress or anything. But it is refreshing to pilot something with a light kerb weight and a willing, puppy-like character.
In terms of layout, the Smart is more interesting. This is because the engine is at the back and it is rear-wheel drive — no points for guessing which legendary performance car shares this setup. But do not expect to impress passers-by in the parking lot with sideways antics.
Power comes from a 999cc unit (52kW and 91Nm) and constant shifting through the five-speed manual gearbox is needed to keep up the momentum. But thrashing the fizzy three-cylinder mill is fun work.
We ought to remember that the ForFour is actually a re-skinned Renault Twingo. Not a bad thing, since the French are known for their skill in the art of the city car. And the Smart rather happily sniffs out and bolts into small gaps in traffic.
You could say the same of the Volkswagen, although it appears superior in the area of refinement. The Up seems a touch better insulated from the hubbub of the city and on the freeway it imparts a solidity that is uncharacteristic of this category.
Displacement is the same as the Smart, with 999cc and a trio of cylinders. The marginally greater power output (55kW and 91Nm) is negligible.
Volkswagen claims a consumption figure of 4.7 litres per 100km while the Smart purports 4.2 litres per 100km. And you can rest assured that you could achieve close to these numbers if you let momentum aid your progress, instead of winding-up those diminutive motors.
It must be said that there is true satisfaction in watching how far the fuel-gauge needles on these cars go after a mere R50 fill-up.
Both interiors reflect the trendy characters of these vehicles. The Smart is especially noteworthy when it comes to the fun stuff, with a fabric-clad dashboard and an abundance of pod-like shapes.
Surprisingly, the Volkswagen has a jovial ambience too, with red upholstery and matching trim inlays. Perceived quality is more impressive in the latter, while the Smart seems to echo hints of your local plastics store.
The boot in the Smart is expectedly compromised, given that it also houses the engine. Both vehicles eschew traditional opening rear windows in favour of pop-out ones, like an old Volkswagen Beetle.
Now what about standard fare? The Volkswagen Cross Up five-door goes for R185 500, while the Colour Up five-door (without the rugged cladding) costs R189 900.
In any case, these models are equipped with the bare necessities and not much else. You get airconditioning, front electric windows, a two-speaker audio system, front, side and curtain airbags and electronic stability control. Goodies like Bluetooth and heated seats are optional.
The Smart ForFour may start at R174 900 and have the same basic features as the equivalent Up models mentioned. But it looks properly plain, even featuring 15-inch steel wheels.
Opt for the ForFour Passion at R199 400 and you get more in the way of visual niceties. Next step on the ladder is the Prime at R210 900, but we will cap things at R200 000.
So which one takes it? The Smart has a trendier demeanour and the prestigious association with Mercedes-Benz. The Volkswagen offers more accomplishment in substance — and for lesser outlay. Let the trendy urban warriors decide. – Words: Brenwin Naidu / Pics: Waldo Swiegers
Fast Facts: Volkswagen Cross Up!
Engine: 999c three-cylinder petrol
Power: 55kW at 6200rpm
Torque: 95Nm at 3000rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
0-100km/h: 14.2-seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 167km/h (claimed)
Fuel: 5.8/100km (achieved)
Price: From R185 500
Fast Facts: Smart ForFour Base
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 R179 900