It’s the most eagerly awaited city car of the year, but can the rear-engined, rear-wheel drive smart forfour live up to expectations?
City cars may be the first rung on the ladder, but the likes of the VW up! prove that small doesn’t have to mean low rent, whilst the Fiat Panda offers space and a big dollop of fun. In short the forfour has its work cut out – in an increasingly sophisticated segment, it needs a compelling USP.
The city car template is pretty simple, take your smallest engine and attach it to the front of your shortest chassis. Anything else is simply prohibitive because sales volumes and margins make anything more adventurous commercial suicide. Or does it?
The forfour has its engine at the back, driving the rear wheels. It’s a brave move on several levels, but the key to making the numbers add up is the asking price (we’ll come back to that later), and an engineering collaboration with Renault which means that development costs for the new platform are shared between the forfour, Twingo, and the new fortwo.
Moving the engine to the back frees up a lot of space at the front which could usefully be used as extra luggage space. Instead smart has decided to maximise the crash structure and provide space for the front wheels to turn further than competitors, which means that the forfour can out manoeuvre any competitor. Combined with very compact dimensions (3.49 metres long, 1.66 metres wide) it allows a kerb-to-kerb U-turn to be competed in just 8.65 metres.
There are more neat design touches inside too. Firstly all forfours come with five doors, with the rear set opening to nearly 90 degrees which makes it much easier to access the rear seats. Next, the standard 185 litres of boot space can be increased by deploying the ‘cargo’ seat position, which locks the 50/50 split fold rear seats into an upright position. If that isn’t enough you can flip over the ‘readyspace’ seat bases which liberates enough headroom to fit a boxed 42 inch TV in the back. Still not enough? Well the front passenger seat folds flat which, in combination, with the folding rear seats, provides a flat loading area of 975 litres and allows objects up to 2.22 metres in length to be swallowed. That means you can get an IKEA Billy bookcase in, just so long as you don’t have any passengers.
Another welcome departure from the design norm is a fabric finish to the upper dashboard and door cards which was inspired by the mesh on training shoes. It looks and feels great, and whilst we suspect it is actually pretty cheap to manufacture, it gives the smart an upmarket feel compared to the usual black plastic that abounds in city cars and superminis. This being smart, it’s available in eye-catching colours too, with orange, black, or blue depending on model.
Interior passenger space is good, although the models with glass roofs have noticeably less headroom, reducing front headspace from great to good, and rear from good to acceptable. Rear legroom is around class average. One point to note is that the front seats have integrated headrests which contribute to good whiplash protection but make it hard for rear seat passengers to see out.
If you’re wondering about what would happen if you hit anything substantial in such a small car, the good news is probably not very much. The people at Euro NCAP have tested it for you and it received a creditable 4 stars, putting it on a par with the best in class. It performs particularly well in whiplash tests where both front and rear passenger protection receive maximum ‘good’ ratings, and the front impact test where it outperforms rivals including the Twingo. What this means in practice is you can hit something with a bit of give in it at 40 mph and have a very good chance of walking away!
Lets get one thing out of the way. When the announcement was made that Renault and smart were working on a rear-engined, rear-drive car, the internet forums exploded with talk of a ‘Porsche for the masses’. This is not a sports car! With expectations suitably realigned we’ll continue.
First impressions are good, the steering wheel is chunky and shaped perfectly to fit into your hands, the seat has plenty of adjustment, all of the major controls are within easy reach and visibility is first class. The 71 bhp unit is short on power but initial pick up is good and in combination with a light and precise clutch action it’s a doddle to drive in town. The brakes have a nicely laid back initial response which makes them very easy to modulate in town ensuring you don’t put your passengers through the windscreen every time you brush the pedal. Reassuringly, when you do stand on the brakes, there’s plenty of stopping power and very little fuss.
The speed-sensitive power steering is light at parking speeds but fails to weight up quickly enough for our liking, which means that up to about 30mph the steering feels a little imprecise. The rack is also a little too quick either side of the straight ahead position with a slightly unnatural initial rate of turn, which means that the first few miles are accompanied by little steering corrections to achieve a clean line through corners.
Once the pace picks up, the steering weighting improves and with it enough feel filters through to confidently predict how much grip the front end has to offer. If you throw the forfour at a corner you will get some understeer quickly followed by the humourless stability control system throwing the kitchen sink at you. The result is not particularly satisfying.
However driven with a touch of finesse, the forfour is great fun. By adopting a smooth, more measured driving style, the smart reveals a lovely neutral balance, good body control, and supple but brilliantly damped suspension. Once you’re in tune with the smart you can even coax a hint of mid-corner oversteer but just don’t get any ideas about pulling angles, there is neither the power nor the ability to switch of the stability control.
At the end of a spirited run across the North York Moors, the decision to develop the rear-engined platform is fully vindicated. It provides the forfour with an agility and high speed balance that other city cars can only dream of.
The only reservation is the 71bhp normally aspirated three-cylinder engine, which does feel a bit out of its depth outside of town, requiring the full range of the engine to maintain speed on hills, and making overtaking a committed and carefully planned activity. Up to around 40 mph it’s great, and it’s tuneful and very willing to rev when asked to, even though it had only covered 200 miles, so was nowhere near run-in. We did notice an unpleasant boomy note below 2,000 rpm which induced a resonate rattle in our particular forfour, but hopefully the rattle in particular is the result of our car being a very early production model.
Officially the 71 bhp forfour returns 67.3 mpg which equates to 97g/km CO2. This is very respectable but isn’t class leading, in fact it isn’t even in the top three which is slightly disappointing given that the smart is a brand new model.
Press launches aren’t the best environment to gauge fuel consumption, but on a 20 mile motorway eco run, we saw 60 mpg. By lunch we had covered over 100 miles following a spirited run over the moors and recorded an average of 45mpg. Based on this, driven sensibly, 50’s should be achievable with 60 for eco gurus.
We said that we’d return to pricing, and now is the time to discuss the elephant in the room. The 71bhp range starts at £11,620 and ends at £13,720 whilst the 90 bhp versions cover £12,215 to £14,315. This is expensive. Whether this makes the forfour overpriced or not is subjective, but the facts of the matter are that basic specifications are high, and the smart offers rear-wheel drive which is something that no supermini or city car can match.
Every forfour gets five airbags, ESP, split-fold rear seats with both cargo position and ‘Readyspace’, a flat-folding front passenger seat, four headrests, five doors, alloy wheels, electric front windows, automatic climate control, a 3.5-inch TFT colour display, and the rather natty fabric finish to the upper dash and door cards.
The ‘prime’, as tested here, adds a full-length panoramic glass roof, analogue rev counter, heated leather seats and lane keeping assistance.
The ‘proxy’ is the same price as the prime but has alternative interior colours, sports suspension and bigger 16-inch wheels. Given that the 15-inch wheels and standard suspension provide a very well judged combination of bump absorption, grip, body control and noise suppression, we would give the sports pack a miss.
All models can be specified with either a smartphone cradle or a fully integrated 7-inch capacitive touchscreen audio and Sat Nav system, which is both modern and intuitive. However on right hand drive cars, your left hand obscures the bottom right hand corner of the screen which is where the next turn navigation info resides. Other ‘big car’ options which are more successfully designed include a rear parking camera, automatic wipers and interior ambient lighting.
In short the forfour is very well specified and offers both standard and optional kit that many city cars simply can’t match. Given this there is one bizarre omission from the standard specification. As standard the steering wheel is fixed. Yes, even on the top of the range model. If you give smart £295 you get a height-adjustable wheel and driver’s seat, and heated mirrors. Along with all cars in this class, there’s no reach adjustable steering wheel.
If you’re sold on the rear-engineed layout but conclude that the smart is overpriced, it’s good to know that the sister Renault Twingo offers the same basic package for a more reasonable £9,495 to £12,545. What you miss out on is the upmarket interior, glass roofs, climate control, 90 degree rear doors and clever seats etc, but you get to keep the fun factor.
The smart forfour is engaging to drive, has lots of big car kit, an amazing turning circle, a natty interior, and offers good refinement on 15-inch wheels with a supple and very well damped ride that hides the short wheelbase very well indeed. This provides the forfour with a feeling of engineering depth that is often missing from city cars, particularly the rear axle control which is generally the Achilles heel of small cars.
The 71bhp engine is great around town but does run out of steam at higher speeds, which means that whilst the forfour is perfectly happy out in the wild, the engine isn’t. For this reason alone we are docking the smart one point. Having tried the 90bhp unit in the Twingo we know that it is much more capable out of town so we predict a 9/10 rating for the quicker forfour.
The further point is docked due to the lofty asking price, the lack of steering wheel adjustability, the very good but not quite class-leading official fuel consumption, and the optional left hand drive Sat Nav unit that is partly obscured.
Where the smart does lead the class is in driving dynamics and for that reason we have no hesitation in recommending the forfour, just make sure you pick the right engine for your usage pattern.
The 71bhp smart forfour is awarded a Green Car Guide rating of 8 out of 10.