Europeans are amused by the wee Smart City Coup's swappable body-color panels, perpendicular street-parking ability, and great fuel economy. But with its tiny footprint, unfailing understeer, hopeless brakes, and frantic but gutless engine, the City Coup would be laughed out of America.
Now comes the follow-up Smart. Actually, a pair of them: the hatchback, targa-topped Roadster Coup and the notchback, convertible Roadster. And guess what? The new Smart is a real car--sort of a modern-day MG Midget--with real-car performance. It's also headed stateside in 2004 or '05.
The Roadster Coup is small but not freakishly so. The proportions differ dramatically from those of the City Coup, with the wheelbase nearly two feet longer, the track wider, and length up by more than a third, while height shrinks by more than a foot. Thanks to its larger stance and lower center of gravity, the latest Smart doesn't feel like a motorized wheelchair. Steering (with optional power assist) is positive and precise, and the wider front tires put almost 50 percent more rubber on the road than does the City Coup. The sporty Smart provides the go-kart-like handling and roadholding that the City Coup never did.
With a tiny, rear-mounted, 698-cc three-cylinder engine turbocharged to deliver 80 horsepower, the funky two-seater accelerates from 0 to 62 mph in 11.2 seconds and musters a 109-mph top speed. The six-speed sequential semi-automatic gearbox has more closely spaced ratios than in the City Coup and notably quicker shifting; the transmission now also incorporates a proper kickdown function. Extra money buys a pair of shift paddles to inject a dose of F1 feeling and keep the fast-breathing engine on the alert. We thrashed it hard all day, but still the fuel economy refused to drop below 45 mpg, a rather remarkable smiles-per-gallon achievement. If Americans aren't wowed by that, maybe those changeable body-color panels will sell them.