The smart fortwo returns for the third time, are the changes big enough to tempt you?
The third generation smart fortwo represents the biggest change to the design of the unique city car since Swatch dreamed up the idea and finally convinced Mercedes Benz to start a new company in 1994. The resulting City-Coupe was launched in 1998 and the only other refresh in 2007 stuck very closely to the original concept.
Once the green light was given to develop a brand new fortwo, it was clear that some thorny engineering challenges needed to be addressed, and they would impact on the now iconic silhouette. In design speak the ‘one box’ shape would have to become a ‘one and a half box’. To you and me this means that the fortwo now has a conventional front end with a normal bonnet. Without it the baby smart wouldn’t meet the pedestrian safety targets. However it is just for crash protection, the engine is still at the back.
Once this dictated change had been made a second very significant decision was made to increase the width. The new car is 1,663 mm wide compared to 1,559 mm, which means that it remains petite but is noticeably wider. This seeks to tackle the high speed instability which had been greatly reduced in the Mark 2 car but still left a disconcerting feeling. Impressively the overall length has been retained at just 2,695 mm, exactly the same as before.
Thanks to the decision to stick with two seats, interior space remains generous and boot space is also impressive; with between 260 – 350 litres on offer it comfortably outclasses all of the city cars and is comparable with superminis. It is also cleverly accessed with a Range Rover-style split folding boot; you can open the glass and leave the bottom closed, allowing you to stuff an amazing amount in without fear of it all tumbling out when you open the boot.
Finally two significant mechanical changes are noteworthy. Firstly the much unloved automated manual gearbox has finally gone, which is brilliant news. In its place is a five-speed manual gearbox or an optional six-speed dual clutch unit. Secondly the super-economical diesel engine is no more, killed off by moderate sales and the cost and packaging complications of meeting Euro 6 legislation. smart will offer an electric version of the new model in time, with sales of the Mark 2 Electric Drive continuing until then.
Anyone who has driven a fortwo with commitment down a challenging road will know that slightly uneasy feeling that you are about to end up on the roof. In truth in the second-generation car this was more of a hunch than a genuinely likely scenario, but it still tempered enthusiasm.
To finally put this to bed, smart has inserted 104mm of extra floor to noticeably increase the width. This has had a dramatic effect on lateral stability which now allows you to corner without wondering if you should have packed a crash helmet. It also liberates enough space in the footwell to install a clutch pedal, although not enough for a left footrest, and ensures that you don’t have to rub shoulders with your passenger if you don’t want to.
The other defining memory of the previous models is the ‘nodding dog’ movement which accompanies every laboured gear change, begrudgingly completed by the automated manual gearbox. The combination of a new five-speed manual gearbox and new suspension also consigns this to the past.
So far so good, but there are still some areas where the fortwo struggles. With the tiny wheelbase remaining, and with top of the range 16-inch wheels and sports suspension, anything other than smooth tarmac reveals that the trademark unsettled ride quality is still present and correct. The suspension is much more compliant than before, but a series of closely-spaced bumps tie the suspension in knots. If you combine said bumps with high speed corners the results are lively, with the tyres struggling to maintain contact with the road; the little smart requires a surprising amount of hand holding. Imagine skimming stones and you won’t be far off.
The overall effect can actually be quite entertaining if you’re in the mood but it will spook the unwary and it makes it difficult to drive the fortwo quickly without triggering the humourless stability control which is permanently on and quickly reigns in any over-exuberance with a cast iron fist. At least in the fortwo we can understand why the system is keen to chip in as oversteer and understeer are largely dictated by which bump you hit last so predicting the balance in advance can be tricky.
We sampled the 71hp three-cylinder engine which makes do without a turbocharger. Around town it’s great; with a short first gear and good low end engine response, nipping out of junctions is easy. The new gearbox plays a big part here too, or more specifically the inclusion of a clutch pedal; the delay between asking for power and moving off is now gone and of course with the driver in control you can dial in some revs first if you need a quick getaway.
Above around 45mph acceleration noticeably weakens which means you do have to work the engine hard on hills and overtaking requires serious planning. Whilst the engine is clearly audible, thanks to it being just behind the driver’s seat, at least it’s tuneful, so we think it adds to the overall character. However others may not.
If you’re planning to do lots of extra urban running, the 90hp turbocharged engine is much stronger, dropping 0-62mph time to a respectable 10.4 seconds, and on paper it’s nearly as efficient.
It may not be totally comfortable out of town, but back on home turf the fortwo has one remaining ace up its sleeve. One of the biggest benefits of having the engine at the back is that the front wheels can turn much further and in the fortwo smart has exploited this brilliantly to produce a stunning turning circle of 6.98m kerb to kerb. To put this in context it is two feet less than a London black cab. In practice this makes the fortwo brilliantly manoeuvrable and is a big advantage over conventional city cars.
Officially the 71hp fortwo returns 68.9mpg which equates to 93g/km CO2. This is very respectable but it can’t quite match the best performing four-seat city cars, which will come as a surprise to some. A bit of digging into the specifications reveals that the fortwo is actually 20kg heavier than the Citroen C1 and Peugeot 108, which managed 74.3mpg on the official tests, so whilst it is tiny, it is no featherweight.
Press launches aren’t the best environment to gauge fuel consumption, but we averaged 50mpg over a mixed 40 mile route which included 60mpg+ on an eco motorway run. Based on this, driven sensibly, 50mpg+ should be achievable, with 60mpg+ for eco gurus.
The fortwo has always been pricey and the new model is no exception, but it has also always been very difficult to objectively compare as it has no direct rivals. Assuming that you see the tiny length as a selling point and you’re happy with two seats, nothing else can match it.
What we can say with more certainty is that you will need to hand over between £11,070 and £13,170 for a 71hp fortwo, and £11,665 and £13,765 for 90hp models.
Every fortwo gets five airbags, ESP, a flat folding front passenger seat, alloy wheels, electric windows, automatic climate control, a 3.5-inch TFT colour display, and a rather natty fabric finish to the upper dash and door cards which looks and feels great and makes the fortwo feel more special than the ubiquitous black plastic that you normally get in city cars.
The ‘prime’, 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.
All models can be specified with either a smartphone cradle or a fully integrated 7-inch capacitive touchscreen audio and satnav 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.
The edition #1 tested here is a launch special addition that includes all of the options and unique colour options for £13,170.
There’s also the smart forfour.
The fortwo continues to offer a unique take on city cars and that is something that we endorse. We also applaud smart on finally fitting a manual gearbox and on making it wider without increasing overall length. In combination with the incredible turning circle, an airy, fun, and well finished interior, great visibility and in context a surprisingly big and very usable boot, it is perfectly suited to urban use and in this context we would award the fortwo 9/10.
However we always test cars in a variety of environments and the fortwo remains compromised out of town. On flat, well surfaced roads it is refined enough to make long journeys a viable option but if you throw in some bumps the skittish ride quickly becomes tiring and restricts progress. Also the 71hp engine struggles with big hills and requires overtaking to be planned in military detail. If this is an issue for you, the 90hp engine is worth a look.
The fortwo remains charming, and has some genuinely innovative design features, but on balance for use both in and out of town the 71hp smart fortwo is awarded a Green Car Guide rating of 7 out of 10.