Not Smart Enough (Part One)

Smart had a difficult birth that foreshadowed a long struggle for viability.

1998 Smart City Coupé. Image: autobild.de

In the early 1980s, the traditional Swiss watchmaking industry was in turmoil because of an onslaught of cheap and highly accurate quartz digital watches manufactured in the Far East. This forced the two largest Swiss watchmakers, ASUAG and SSIH(1), both of which were insolvent, into a defensive merger in 1983, forming what would become the Swatch Group after a takeover of the original Swatch company, founded in the same year by Ernst Thomke, Elmar Mock and Jacques Müller.

Swatch had been launched with a business plan to fight back against the digital invasion and regain control of the market in everyday watches. The plan was simple but brilliant: to turn the wristwatch into a relatively cheap fashion item that would be produced in a wide range of colours and styles, thereby expanding the market enormously by enticing customers to build up a collection of watches, rather than the one or two they might have previously owned.

The plan was hugely successful, and Swatch Group became the world’s largest manufacturer of wristwatches. The driving force behind Swatch Group was Nicolas Hayek, a management consultant who had been brought in by the creditor banks as CEO to oversee the merger and restructuring(2) of the legacy companies that formed the backbone of the new group.

Hayek was also interested in matters automotive and saw an opportunity to bring Swatch’s high-fashion youthful image to the automobile market. He envisaged a small and economical but stylish two-seater city car that would appeal to sophisticated young urbanites. Hayek approached a number of European automakers about forming a joint venture.

He was turned down by both Renault and Fiat, but Volkswagen Group expressed interest and negotiations were ongoing when Ferdinand Piëch was appointed Chairman in 1993. Piëch had more pressing concerns, however: Volkswagen Group had lost DM1.61 billion (US $947 million) in the first half of the year, so he had enough to do to revive the core business, and discussions about the proposed joint-venture were terminated.

Hayek instead reached an agreement with Daimler-Benz AG, announced in March 1994, and a new 50:50 joint company was formed, Micro Compact Car AG. Daimler would design the new city car, while Hayek would assume responsibility for its hybrid drivetrain. During the development of the new car, the project required additional capital, so Daimler injected the required funds and increased its stake to 81% in 1996. Progress on the hybrid drivetrain had stalled, and relations between Hayek and Daimler soured.

Smart City Coupé Interior. Image: parkers.co.uk

The new car was launched at the Paris motor show in October 1998 under the Smart(3) brand name. By this time, Hayek’s involvement in the project was marginal and Daimler bought the remaining shares in the company from Swatch soon afterwards.

The Smart City Coupé was a two-seater, rear-engined city car with a three-cylinder 599cc turbocharged petrol engine in three states of tune, producing 45, 51 or 61bhp (34, 38, or 45kW). Drive was via a six-speed Getrag automated manual gearbox. This transmission was considered ideally suited to town driving, dispensing with a clutch but not having the weight and complexity of a traditional torque converter automatic. The car was built at a new factory in Hambach, France.

One distinctive innovation in the design was the Tridion Safety Cell, made of high-strength steel and designed to dissipate forces away from the occupants in the event of an accident. This gave the occupants significantly better crash protection than would otherwise have been the case in such a small car. It also came equipped with twin front airbags and electronic stability control(4). Consequently, it was awarded a four-star Euro NCAP rating. Another innovation was plastic body panels that were easily (but not cheaply) replaced, should the owner wish for a change in colour.

The City Coupé really was diminutive, with an overall length of 2,500mm (98½”), width of 1,510mm (59½”) and height of 1,500mm (59”). The wheelbase was 1,810mm (71¼”) and the wide tracks front and rear gave it a wheel in each corner appearance for maximum stability. Kerb weight was just 730kg (1,610 lbs).

The car was initially sold in nine mainland European countries and was warmly received by its target customers for its funky good looks inside and out and its manoeuvrability. For such a small car, the City Coupé was not, however, particularly economical (overall 57.6mpg) or environmentally friendly (118g/km CO2). Worse, it was not great to drive.

The automotive website Honest John reported that the driving position was awkward: “You’ll find yourself sat too close to the steering wheel (which has no adjustment) in order to get full travel on the pedals.” The automated manual gearbox was jerky and slow-witted: “all shifts are slow with the car taking an age to find the next cog.” The unassisted steering is “direct with a reasonable amount of feel” while the handling, although safe, suffers from “bags of understeer from the tiny tyres at the slightest whiff of a hairpin.” Another complaint was a “lack of rear three-quarter visibility”, a serious drawback for a car designed for use in congested city streets.

2000 Smart City Cabrio. Image: autoevolution.com

Despite these shortcomings, the City Coupé sold well and was joined by an open-top version called the City Cabrio in 2000. Both models were facelifted in 2002 and renamed the Fortwo and Fortwo Cabrio. The engine capacity was increased to 698cc, available in two states of tune, producing 50 or 61bhp (37 or 45kW). A 799cc turbodiesel engine producing 41bhp (30kW) was also introduced. The cosmetic changes were modest, but the facelifted models are recognisable by their peanut-shaped headlamps.

Daimler was keen to leverage the new marque further and began designing two-seater roadster and coupé models that would utilise the existing drivetrain. A roadster concept had been shown at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1999, followed by a coupé concept at the Paris motor show in October 2000.

The production models were launched at the Paris motor show in October 2002 and went on sale early the following year. They shared the same floorpan, mechanical package and much of their bodywork, including the targa roof. The Roadster had an upright rear screen and flat rear deck, while the Roadster Coupé had a glass liftback and fixed rear quarter windows.

2004 Smart Roadster. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

Both were underpinned by a stretched version of the Fourtwo’s platform, with the wheelbase extended by 550mm (21¾”) to 2,360mm (93”). Overall length was 3,427mm (135”), width was 1,656mm (65¼”) and height was just 1,192mm (47”). Both were powered by the 698cc engine, either in 61bhp (45kW) or 80bhp (60kW) states of tune, although only the latter was available in the Roadster Coupé.

There were also Brabus versions with the engine tuned to develop 99bhp (74kW). The engine was coupled to a modified gearbox, intended to quicken the automated gearchanges. The Brabus models were distinguished by lowered suspension, unique alloy wheels and a body kit. Inside, there were sporting embellishments and Brabus branding on the starter button and floor mats.

Smart had successfully captured the spirit of small and light back-to-basics sports cars in their new pairing and sales initially outstripped expectations. Unfortunately, the models’ reputation was soon tarnished by a range of problems, including water leaking into the cabin and numerous electrical faults, often caused by water ingress.

Such was the extent of warranty claims for these faults that Daimler had to spend an estimated average of €3,000 (US $3,600) per car on rectification work. This allegedly led to the premature termination of production after just three years, when 43,091 had been produced, 39,589 of which had been sold in Europe(5).

It was reported that automotive designer Gordon Murray attempted to purchase the rights to the Smart Roadster, intending to produce a modified version with a manual transmission to be sold under the AC marque name. The plan came to nothing.

The history of Smart continues shortly in Part Two of this series.

(1) Allgemeine Gesellschaft der Schweizerischen Uhrenindustrie and Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère.

(2) Hayek had originally been employed to oversee the liquidation of the two companies, but he persuaded the banks that he could develop a viable business following a merger and rationalisation.

(3) Smart was a contraction of ‘Swatch Mercedes ART’. Hayek had wanted to call the car the ‘Swatchmobile’ but Daimler insisted on a more neutral name.

(4) After the A-Class ‘Elk Test’ debacle of the previous year, Daimler was taking no chances with the similarly proportioned Smart. Changes to the Smart’s suspension and steering delayed its launch from March to October 1998.

(5) Sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

65 thoughts on “Not Smart Enough (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. The Smart was highly anticipated. At the time I had a friend who was definitely a non-car person and wanted to know all about it. She thought such a small car might be a good buy as it was economical. In the end she rather had 4 seats than 2. She bought a Fiat Punto, which cost about as much. If I recall correctly a lot of people did the the same as sales figure were a bit disappointing.

    I have only ever driven a Smart once, a Brabus Roadster. It was a bit of a disappointment, especially the gear change. My judgement was probably clouded as I literally stepped from an Elise 111R straight into the Smart. Not a fair comparison: the Elise had stolen my heart.

  2. Gordon Murray had a roadster in a unique green (to match a highlighter pen he had) and Murray tartan interior.

    When McLaren was an F1 works partner with Mercedes, various senior people at McLaren were given free choice of any vehicle from the MB range. Apparently Ron Dennis couldn’t believe that Gordon Murray didn’t go for the most expensive option and didn’t change the car annually as he was entitled.

    1. The Roadster was apparently Gordon’s daily driver for many years, only quite recently being upstaged by a new Alpine.

    2. As far as I know he still has it, but it resides in his collection now.

    3. This green one must have been the first one. I know he had two. He drove the first one until it fell apart (if I recall his own words correctly) and replaced it with another Roadster.

  3. I rather liked the original version (pre-peanut lamps) and also the Roadster/ Coupe. I did think for a while about a Brabus version of the Coupe which I thought looked great and sounded like a lit of fun. Then I saw the price and it was too hard to justify. I think the problem for cars like this (and the iQ and A2) is that there are not enough people around who will pay a premium for ‘cleverness’. It’s also possible that the market for two-seater city cars is more finite than product planners guessed it would be. Did they ever make a turn on the investment in Smart, I wonder.

    I am sure you will come to it, but the concept and pre-prod ‘scoops’ of the incoming small SUV show a cross between a MINI and an Adam (maybe, after yesterday’s article, they could call it the ‘Madam’?), and it’s not Smart at all.

    1. Selling people ‘cleverness’ is a difficult task indeed! But, while I would ust this term for the A2, I’m not entirely sure it really applies to the Smart. In theory, carrying not a lot of car around and having not mor than two places sounds like good idea for singles or couples living in cities, but many of them still appreciate the possibility to carry more people or luggage occasionally. And, as it was said in the article, the Smart wasn’t especially economical, so the cleverness was somewhat limited. Moreover, if I look at the situation in Swiss cities, many parking opportunities are in places where you pay per parking field, so you have to pay the same amount like for a ‘proper’ car, even if you occupy only half of the field. I’ve only seen very few dedicated microcar spaces around here. Maybe that’s different in other countries.
      In the end, Smarts sold more on ‘fashion’ than on ‘cleverness’, and the fashionability seemed to vanish quite quickly.

    2. The 1st gen Smart still has a big following. the fact is if you live / work in a crowded city and can have another bigger car (or don’t need it), the ForTwo is, in my view, unsurpassed for those duties. Nippy, reliable and able to park in previously impossible spots. Later generations have grown bigger, the iQ is also bigger (and very dumpty looking in my view).

    3. Some of the advertising ballyhoo at the Smart’s launch was their pretended lobbying for perpendicular parking in cities and for dedicated Smart parking spaces in multi storey car parks.
      The first never happened and I only know one car park which had decidated Smart spaces for a short time.
      It’s quite common nevertheless to see Smarts parked at ninety degrees to the road where they shouldn’t for which they are simply still too long and protrude even past monsters like Q7s.

  4. Today (March 7th) is Walter Röhrl’s 75th birthday and I want to commemorate it by his quote “Smart? This is not a car, this is an insult. I’d rather walk than use one of those.”

    At the time of the A-class’ moose/elk test debacle I was on a consulting job at Mercedes’ truck plant and they made jokes about A-class production responsibility being transferred from passenger cars to trucks because they had more experience with tippers. At the same time the Smart’s launch was delayed and the car considerably reworked. I still have a sales brochure of the original version with narrow rear track and identical sized tyres front and rear. They wanted to make sure that no complaints about the Smart’s road manners would occur and this resulted in a resolutely understeering setup guaranteed by the angle grinder disc sized narrow front tyres, wide(r) rear track and new suspension tuning. They also introduced ESP and gave the car its horribly slow gearchange characteristics to make sure no sudden change or power surge would throw it out of a corner – the gearbox by the way didn’t have six speeds but was made up from a three speed gearbox and a two speed countershaft arrangement so you didn’t change one gear but two every time.
    The Smart still suffered from a big problem when it was driven rearwards at a right angle against a curb above a certain height which would make it flip onto its rear window with the nose pointing skywards. This was cured by all kinds of electronic wizardry to limit the speed when driving rearward.

    Mr. Hayek stressed the nerves of the development team with the sentence “it must be possible to make this more simple”. The most visible results were the self tapping screws holding the cylinder head to the block that made the engine a throwaway item in case of an engine defect because no repair was possible. The next prominent item was the screen washer bottle which was made in one piece with the tube to the pump. When the tube cracked you had to buy a new bottle…

    In 2021 the last remaining Smart tower had been demolished. These towers were a central part of the Smart’s sales concept which relied on a time of less than one hour from signing the contract to delivery of the car from the Smart tower. Somehow it didn’t work out as intended. Smart sales numbers in any given country were limited to a certain portion of the market and additional sales only could be generated by entering new markets which again were saturated very quickly.

    1. Self-tapping screws? That is mad! (in a bad way) 😲

    2. Good afternoon, Dave. All this is new to me. And all of it is bad.

    3. The blurb about the Tridion cell and its crash safety is nonsense.
      The Smart’s wheelbase was so short that in standard side impact tests the crash barriers invariably hit both wheels and simply pushed the car sideways with no intrusion into the interior whatsoever.
      The claim that the Tridion cell dissipates forces of a frontal impact away from the passengers misses the point because in such an accident it is important to bring the g-forces down to levels that don’t harm the passengers and this is not done by hard structures but by soft crumple zones – something the Smart obviously lacks to a large degree. In frontal impacts the non-existant crumple zone and rock hard cell were described as “activates the other car’s crumple zone”. This might have been tolerable in case of an accident with an S-class whose crumple zone already is designed to protect the other car as much as possible but in case of an accident with an Up or Twingo it is utterly unfair because it protects the Smart at the cost of those in the other small car.

  5. Good morning all. I seem to recall incidents in Amsterdam where groups of drunk men on stag weekends picked up Smart cars and dumped them into the canals. In similar vein, here’s an obviously staged incident involving a Smart car and a Porsche Cayenne:

    The problem with the original Smart (and the new Ami) is the lack of any meaningful luggage space. The focus on (inner) city dwellers may be misplaced as, without the ability to carry luggage, good public transport is often just as attractive an option.

    1. Luggage space was fine for the weekly shop or a weekend away, and for longer items, you could fold the passenger seat and even poke stuff out the rear window (split tailgate).

  6. I beg to disagree on Dave’s comment about perpendicular parking. On a 1st gen Smart, if you get your wheels right to the curb, you can do it without anything sticking out… and this was before the Q7 appeared on the scene.
    Subsequent generations got longer mainly due to pedestrian safety regs, so that trick might not work.

  7. Hello Daniel, I’ve only ridden shotgun in a Smart once. It seemed roomy and nippy enough, but the Citroën C1 that replaced had much the same qualities in a not much bigger package, whilst being nicer to drive, roomier and cheaper to run. To boot, the Smart was replaced because its little engine had effectively seized up and needed to be replaced entirely (out of warranty), apparently also a known fault. The Smart has always struck me as an object lesson in how difficult it is to do something like the iPhone: well engineered and sporting a few real life advantages, but also marketed at a fashion-conscious and affluent public with correspondent pricing. The Smart was well-engineered (if not in the clever-but expensive way of the A2 or the ruthlessly rudimentary way of the Toyota C1, Peugeot Aygo, Citroën 107 – oh, you know) but also explicitly aimed at being a fashion statement. A much more fickle market there is not. Reliability problems didn’t help either.

    I’ve always liked the Roadster/Coupé as a concept in a kei-car kind of way, but apparently it isn’t that much better to drive than the ForTwo and equally unreliable. It could have been great if Gordon Murray had been able to bring his own version to market.

    Of local interest to me is that the first ForFour (a tarted up Mitsubishi Colt) was produced in the Nedcar factory in Limburg. But that’s presumably still to come.

    1. The only thing in a Smart that’s kind of well engineered is the engine. By keeping its external dimensions small and the weight of its internal parts low there is not much that could cause vibrations, but that’s already all that can be said in favour of it. The engine is a throwaway consumable that’s not meant to be repairable and that is pretty bad. The rest of the car’s engineering is cost saving crap.
      As you said there are proper cars for less money that as a big additional advantage don’t suffer the Smart’s hipster image. Sales numbers show it: there’s a certain group of urban population that urgently needs a Smart and when they all have one sales numbers in that country collapse and to keep up sales Smart has to enter a new export market, an expensive sales model that originally wasn’t planned.
      If Daimler didn’t need the Smart’s contribution to lower their fleet fuel consumption the experiment would have been terminated many years ago.

    2. Yes, whether or not you buy into the sustainability narrative (which I do, with reservations), designing something to not be repairable is just bad. Currently (in Amsterdam at least), there are all manner of (electric) microcars – forerunners of the new Ami – zipping around the town, but those are more like uprated mopeds. The Smart missed its niche, I think: too small and compromised for those seeking transport in and around town, too large for citybound traffic better suited to four-wheeled mopeds, not compelling enough as a fashion statement. The latter is mainly because fashions change more rapidly than car ownership does, so as you say, demand dries up quickly.

  8. Good afternoon Tom. Yes, more to come: Part Two will be published on Thursday, with the concluding part next Monday.

    I’ve never been in a Smart, although one of our neighbours is on her third Fortwo, so much like it. I must ask her about it sometime.

    1. I’ve had a couple of ForTwos and now I own a Roadster, so I’m definitely biased!

      Notwithstanding, maybe I’m lucky but I never had any real reliability issues with my Smarts. As far as I can remember, my Roadster went into limp mode due to a faulty turbo control valve (25€) and the wiper motor got noisy with age (also cheap, it’s the same used on some Opels and others).
      They can leak that’s true. The folding roof has several weak points that have to be addressed to get it completely rain-proof, but that’s all…

      Probably the most frequent criticism is the slowness of gear changes. That’s a bit of an unfair sentence passed by motoring journos after just a few hours of driving / testing. There is some skill to get the best of the gearbox but that hardly fits within the timeframes of a road test.
      In fact, when comparing it with a Cayman or Cayenne with Tiptronic from the same vintage there’s hardly any difference in speed, at least in the Roadster, as this was one of the areas that was addressed when it came out.

    2. Hi PJ. I’m rather fond of the Roadster. It seemed to fulfil the brief for a small and light fun car better than anything (that wasn’t an Elise or Japanese, at least) since the MG Midget. What a shame those warranty issues caused it to be killed off prematurely.

    3. After the A-class’ debacle Daimler could not afford another one and it was clearly visible that the Smart had the potential to become an even bigger disaster even with standard ESP.
      The combination of a rear engine, extremely short wheelbase and high centre of gravity was a fatal mixture and Daimler played every trick they knew to prevent newspaper articles about accidents caused by snap oversteer in the hands of the expected clientele. Standard (primitive) ESP, wafer thin front tyres combined with fat ones at the rear, lowered and hardened suspension made for resolute understeer but then they had to prevent sudden mid-corner downshifts with their brake effect that would have thrown the car out of the corner and went for slow gearchanges.
      In the lower and longer mid engined sports versions this was no longer necessary.

    4. I do see a few around (mostly gen 1’s) and I can understand the appeal to an extent. The appeal is just a little too narrow, like the front tires.

  9. Good morning, Daniel. The Smart — a car that, in the United States, has, I think, been a curiosity more than a viable choice. Thanks for the back story.

    Most of the Smarts I’ve seen in the U.S. (they’ve been phased out) have been in urban hire-a-car-by-the-hour pools. Why you would want a car the size of a Smart? To carry the things you can’t carry on public transit? Little room for that. And with the advent of the Uber/Lyft ridesharing scheme, the use case diminishes further for an alternative to public transit.

    But I have a friend who purchased one with her own money. She’s traveled quite a bit and always liked the looks of it and, after some fairly major lifestyle changes, she decided she should have one. I’ve ridden in it a few times and kind of marvel at the amount of space inside compared to outside.

    But I also wonder why people would want to spend the money on a Smart that could have been spent on any number of somewhat larger vehicles, many of which provide more elbow room and much more cargo space, are quieter and smoother, get close to the same fuel mileage, and provide more of a psychological benefit when surrounded by the King Ranch pickups and Suburbans that are rampant on American roads. As Dave pointed out, there seems to be a finite number of customers in each market for such a vehicle, and, once they’re satisfied, it seems to be time to move on.

    No idea what my friend will buy when the Smart becomes unfeasible to own. She’s the Fiat 500 type but, in the U.S., that’s not the (sorry) smartest choice. In fact, by the time she buys another car the 500 may not be offered for sale at all. Maybe a Kia Soul…

    1. I always thought the Smart never made any sense in the US. There’s no need for such a tiny car.
      It surprises me that they even sold a few.

    2. The 500 is already not offered for sale in the U.S. The 500X is the only FIAT theoretically still available, but dealers have bailed and there seem to be very few stocks nationwide.

    3. I would have thought with the present price for fuel she is enjoying her Smart and considering it a wise choice. Until recently I kept a Smart in the States for yearly visits purely because I only needed two seats, it was easy to store and being an owner on and off through the years from their initial introduction trusted them.
      American friends asked if I felt unsafe among the large trucks, my answer was i make for a small target, difficult to hit, like trying to swat a fly!

    4. Maybe I’m spoiled by driving a Mk. 4 VW diesel, but I get better mileage on my car than my friend does and that probably includes when I’m carrying three passengers and belongings. But, yes, for most Americans, the mileage of a Smart car is worth celebrating, especially in the days of US$5 for four liters of fuel. My friend has no intention of ditching her Smart, but one has to think it can manage only so many salt-laden winter roads and close encounters with ever-larger pickups and SUVs.

    5. I’m full of doubt regarding the billiard ball philosophy of crash safety as the pyrotechnics and regulations covering structural integrity only account for the primary impact.

  10. The idea for the Smart came, as already written in the article, from Hayek who wanted to transfer the young-urban-hipster concept of his Swatch to a young-urban-hipster-mobility concept.
    Due to a lack of competence in the automotive sector, he needed a partner.
    I doubt whether MB was the best choice (not only because of the Elk debacle). It would probably have been better with a Japanese manufacturer with experience in K-Cars.

    I remember many announcements in the run-up to the release, all under the label “we are making the new mobility”. Hayek and his people were – no doubt because of the success of the Swatch – travelling in a big balloon filled with hot air.

    Hayek did not want the Smart to be longer than 2.5 metres, as this was (is) the maximum allowed width of a vehicle (see trucks) in Europe and thus the vehicle could be parked 90° to the direction of travel. Actually a clever idea to save parking space without the vehicle protruding into the lane.
    In most countries, however, this way of parking a vehicle was not regulated by law. There were countries where it was not allowed, but maybe tolerated. There were countries where it was not explicitly forbidden, but not provided for. (Speaking for Germany: in some cities it was tolerated, in some you got a ticket for it).
    So the parking concept failed because of the existing legal basis.
    (Since the European legislators did not follow Hayek’s great idea, there was no reason for MB to stick to the 2.5 metre limit for the second generation. With 25 cm more length, however, the Smart has watered down the original concept without surpassing the genius of a C1.) Fail.

    Hayek wanted (at least in Germoney) to integrate Deutsche Bahn into his “mobility concept”. The idea was for journeys across the republic, you drive to the local station, load your Smart onto a car train, sit down in the board restaurant and drive your Smart from the station at your destination.
    Deutsche Bahn neither had the resources nor the desire (and the money) to provide these resources. Next Fail.

    Hayek wanted to achieve a fashionable component by making the plastic panels of the Smart interchangeable, along the lines of “Honey, pastel shades are in this spring. Let’s change the plastic parts to the colour of my handbag.” Technically quite feasible, commercially a disaster. Thanks to MB, changing the body parts twice was about in the price region of a new car. Most hipsters couldn’t afford it. Next fail.

    In addition, the maintenance costs and fuel consumption of a Smart were on the level of a “real” car (C1, Punto et al.). Economically there was no advantage.
    In countries like France they competed with microcars from Aixam, Ligier and the like, without a chance to win the competition. In countries like Germoney (a world without microcars), once the hipster factor was subtracted, there was no longer any sensible reason to buy a Smart.

    It could have been so nice. But it didn’t. The Smart smashed against the wall of reality.

    But all that doesn’t change the fact that if we hit the Euro Lotto jackpot, I will get myself a Smart Roadster (in the coupe version). With the best-wife-of-all in her Elise (1st series) we will then have some fun on Europe’s narrow roads in this lifetime. All rather improbable, but I’ll report back when it happens…

    1. I remember quite well the advertising campaign accompanying the Smart’s launch.
      They showed all the things you mentioned and everything ended with the sentence “we are working on that”.
      They were working on making that parking legal, they were working on creating that mobility cooperation with railways and many more.
      Without black rimmed hipster spectacles it was clearly visible that this was nothing but hot air and utterly unrealistic nonsense.
      Lobbying regulatory authorities to make parking legal in every export country (for example in Austria this way of parking was explicitly illegal)?
      Lobbying dozens of railway organisations? Where did they think all those new railway stations were going to be built? How did they think this was all getting profitable? Who would have had to pay for that all?
      All that in parallel and for a car that sold in neglible numbers?
      What did they think their customers were smoking?

  11. Anybody has mentioned the awful ride quality? I rented a Smart for a week (I think it was in 2004) and you noticed every small crease in the road. Just what you don´t want driving over city tarmac. I don´t know if the dampers were firmed up to avoid elk test disasters, or simply there is little you can do with a very short wheelbase.
    The gearbox was a joke in auto mode, but in sequential the changes could be done more quickly after some practice with the stick and the throttle.
    Boot space wasn´t that bad. In fact I remember inviting my parents to have some beers and tapas and we went in the Smart. I travelled in the boot (I was like 27, and I´m about 1.78 meters!)

    1. Once, during some holidays in Algarve, as it was very difficult to park near the beach, I took my father’s ForTwo and “stuffed” my 2 young ones in the back. They found it hilarious. It was obviously a short distance…

    2. Ride quality certainly wasn’t great, but no worse than some tuned German marques (I wondered whether suspension was an optional extra along with optional indicators…).

    3. I had a Brabus Smart Coupe when I lived in Amsterdam as my work vehicle. For that, it was ideal – not our only vehicle, easy to park in the Dutch cities, fitted in our parking space at home, and quick enough to surprise other drivers. Economy was fine, though range was limited by the small tank in that version. The gearbox was almost always used in semi-auto mode – once you got used to it (use it as remotely-shifted manual) it was fine, you could blip the throttle on the down-shifts quite easily. The Brabus rode on reasonably wide tyres (195/50/15 – the same as the fronts on my A310), so wasn’t prone to understeer like the standard versions. It was fun in the snow, especially with the traction control disabled 😉

      Boot space was more than adequate for the weekly shop, and IIRC, the front passenger seat folded flat for longer items.

      The only issue I had in the three plus years I had it was the air conditioning packed up one day coming back from Belgium. On the hottest day of the year. Stuck in a traffic jam. Just at the start of a tunnel 😦

      I’d actually narrowed down the choice between the Smart and an Audi A2, but the tax implication on the A2 was significantly higher.

  12. Hello! Thanks a lot for this article, I really think that the 1st gen smart fortwo is a living capsule of 90s fun and positive attitude. I have owned both a 450 and 451 , as a designer myself I really appreciate all the fun details specially on the 1st gen fortwo.
    – The a/c plenum IS the dashboard moulding and exhausts on the lateral and center vent. Same as a Pagani.
    – The center console is angled towards the driver not for split second control access but merely as to open up interior space.
    – Both seatbacks are solid metal and the passenger seatback folds forwards for cargo.
    – It honestly drives very well, there is a sense of lightness on all touchpoints and even though it understeers; it does so in a more predictive manner than say a Fiat 500.
    – if anyone has a bit of spare time, the development prototypes of the fortwo are delightfully 90s, fun, colorful, vibrant and happy. It is worth checking them out on the interwebs.

  13. It’s fascinating to get all the background on this – especially the designed-in performance limitations, which at least make sense to me, now.

    I think the Smart Roadster / Coupé is a wonderful little thing, but I only rarely saw one, even when they were in production.

    The Smart concept is limited to the extent that many people ultimately want cars to be able to do many things – especially in the secondhand market where there may only be one vehicle in the household. One might think that Smarts would make more sense as EVs (or possibly not, if the technology limits them even further).

  14. Aside from being fitted into original Smart Fortwo, is there any commonality between the M160 petrol and OM660 diesel 3-cylinder engines or any other notable link with other Mercedes developed engines of the period?

    To be honest was not a fan of Smart when it first appeared and even when the Smart Roadster was launched, felt the lack of a proper manual gearbox in favour of the troublesome automated manual detracted from its appeal. With a manual the Roadster could have been produced for another 7 years or so in line with the 2nd generation Fortwo, however of the view the related concepts and projects like the Dodge Slingshot and stillborn AC Ace had more visual appeal.

    As Mitsubishi petrols were used in the 2nd generation Fortwo, had it been possible did wonder if UK/European versions of the Mitsubishi i could have in turn been equipped with the Smart 0.8 cdi, which would have further expanded its appeal to create the smallest sub 1-litre 5-door diesel on the market since the 993cc Daihatsu Charade diesel (followed later by the Indian market 936cc Chevrolet Beat diesel).

    1. Why would you want a foot operated clutch and a gated gear selector when paddle shifters and auto clutch provide quicker shifts plus provide the choice of going automatic as well.
      I regularly go from one to the other and back depending on mood or driving environment. if a car doesent shift properly it needs reprograming.

    2. Because am interested in a small sportscar for a more old-school driving experience with a manual, like a more up to date European built Honda Beat with the bonus of a fastback coupe bodystyle.

      Would have otherwise been indifferent had the automated manual not been the only available gearbox, which is a shame as that element IMHO likely put-off a number of people who including myself who would have otherwise been interested in the Smart Roadster and were disappointed when Project Kimber remained stillborn.

  15. I agree with others who have iterated on the idea that “city car” is a defunct concept. If one lives in the city, they have little or no need for a car to use within the city. But an efficient commuter car or excursionary vehicle that is light, aerodynamic, and safe still seems an idea worth pursuing. I think it is clear that a small boxy shape like the Fortwo has can afford neither a low drag coefficient compared to its frontal area, nor the requisite crush space needed for safety. But the VW XL1 would seem to have the necessary form factor for the kind of vehicle that could present a reasonably small physical and ecologicial footprint while being useful to urban, suburban, and rural users. In this case then why have so much time, energy, and resources been expended instead on little boxes like the Fortwo or the current Ami?

    Is it that city people discount the needs of rural and even suburban folk to comfortably acesss their metropoli? Do we cling to some sort of absurd and obsolete utopian vision based solely on freeing up physical space within city limits?

    I think we don’t need to dwell too much on why the Fortwo, Toyota iQ, etc. have failed to take root, but rather ask why cars that follow the form of an XL1 (it was way too expensive) or the original Honda Insight (still too expensive), yet are priced like the Ami aren’t on auto makers’ priority lists.

    1. That’s a very good question, gooddog. If their argument is that they won’t sell, and therefore there’s no point in pricing them cheaply, then that becomes a circular argument. I can’t imagine that it’s cheaper to engineer an SUV (?), although there may be bigger profit margins. People equate quantity with value, to some extent.

    2. I assume you are wishing for a more traditional shape of sporty car thats super economical rather than the gorky shapes of the city cars, thats probably an even more limited market and not likely to happen.
      Incidentally there is an XL1 nearby that ive examined closely and believe you would find using one an inferior experience compared to the Smart as it is more akin to an experimental exercise.
      Ive had three years with a Honda Insight back in early 2000 and loved every minute but doubt if most others would feel the same. Those ultra high mpg cars require compromises that most drivers are not willing or capable of exercising.

  16. “It could have been so nice. But it didn’t. The Smart smashed against the wall of reality.”

    Should be, “It could have been so nice. But it didn’t. The Smart smashed against the wall of Mercedes Benz.”

    These cars were much too tall. They were also unreliable. And they were dull, dull, dull. A few people addressed these troubles over the years. The best repair was to stick a litre plus Japanese motorcycle engine and transmission in where the passenger seat used to be. These conversions were fun. Some were very good, with thoroughly reworked suspension and lowered everything (including the driver’s seat). That engine wailed away in its box right beside the driver. You could hear every gear change- bang, bang, bang! The car set up like this was super agile and reasonably quick as well. I used to stow my bag on top of the engine box with tie downs. Fun times. THAT was a real city car.

  17. Good morning all. I’ve been catching up on all your comments this morning and wanted to thank you for an interesting and informative exchange. By happy coincidence, this piece followed closely on S.V. Robinson’s reflections on the future (if any) for the city car.

    Gooddog’s comment above, I think, captures the key issue: “If one lives in the city, they have little or no need for a car to use within the city. But an efficient commuter car or excursionary vehicle that is light, aerodynamic, and safe still seems an idea worth pursuing.”

  18. A special version of the Smart was produced for the Japanese market where it was sold as a kei car.
    To fit into the regulations the car had to be slimmed down at the rear resulting in a Smart K that looked remarkably similar to the original version before the rework

    At a large press event held for the Smart’s delayed launch they wanted to show the supposed crash worthiness of the car. They hired a professional stunt driver who was supposed to drive the car at 20 kph through a wall made from wood and plaster. In the event the driver approached the wall at the desired speed and in the last moment instinctively hit the brakes hard and just bumped into the wall at pedestrian speed instead of spectacularly crashing through it.
    That not even a professional stunt driver had enough faith in the crash worthiness of the Smart made them the joke of the day.

    Here’s a demonstration how a Smart cannibalises sombody else’s crumple zone

    1. I would like to know of a big crash were crumple zones haven’t been cannibalised… That’s their purpose

    2. What happens if a Smart hits a Smart – do they just bounce off each other ?

  19. Wow unlike Dave I really like these things, you know sometimes we have to step outside our comfort zone and experience something on the fringe to broaden our views and just maybe find it enlightening, There are no perfect cars, perfect in every respect that is.
    Owning A Smart is a bit like running a motorbike as it will go places a conventional car won’t and is just big enough for two like a bike, indeed there are a lot of bikers who run Smart cars in the winter to stay warm and dry.
    Ive personally owned five since their inception plus two roadsters, all without any problems, enjoyed each ln fact my last roadster of five years had appreciated and sold for three times the amount I paid for it.
    Sterling Moss bought one of the early Smarts and loved it so they couldnt be all that bad Dave!

  20. I have owned three smart cars. One, an early left hand drive model (2000 model) imported to the UK from Luxembourg before they were officially imported into the UK, a second early generation bought new in the UK (2003 model) and a roadster bought new in 2004. Both of the smart city-coupe cars were before they were called ‘ForTwo’, in passion trim.

    A lot of people criticised the gear change, but we never found it a problem. I soon learned to anticipate the time/speed at which the gear change would take place and a gentle lift on the accelerator at the right moment would give seamless and smooth changes. Rather than fight the gearbox, work with it and give it a hand and progress would be much better. Our first version had a fabulously funky electric blue interior that we loved, this was very quickly replaced with a much more mundane and less interesting uniform grey on both later city-coupe and roadster. Guess I was the only one who liked it? The left hand drive model had a Grundig radio unit that also lit up in blue, complimenting the interior beautifully. I think this was an after market unit as I only ever saw that one.

    In total, we had the smart cars and the roadster for nearly twenty years. Yes the roadster did leak a little even after all the modifications. It also would get through windscreen wiper motors once every few years (including a frightening total failure in Scotland on a packed motorway in torrential rain while being sandwiched between two articulated lorries drowning the car in spray from the wheels – new underwear needed there!). We had about four starter motors on it too, but then my Wife is a “District Nurse” and is constantly stop – starting all day, every day. Driving the roadster was addictive. It was just too much fun. You always wanted to go that bit further, have another corner to blast round. I got a job where I needed to commute 100 miles daily across Lincolnshire’s underinvested road network. For this I bought a Yaris (with a similar automated gearbox – which was also derided by many, but if driven in a similar way to those in the smart of anticipating the gear changes and lifting the accelerator at the right time – was equally smooth) I could do this in around one hour (one way) in the Yaris in the summer across the back roads, in the roadster I could save 15 minutes as I just didn’t need to slow for almost any corners, it was an absolute blast. Unadulterated joy to drive.

    Why did I buy a Yaris as a second car and not another smart? Here’s where we get to the main problem (in my experience) for smart in the UK. Whereas on the continent there may have been dedicated smart boutiques, in the UK they were sold in Mercedees dealerships. The Lincoln smart dealership originally was in a glorified shed out the back and across the grass of the Mercedees showroom – they weren’t allowed inside! The service was shockingly bad. Even trying to buy both of the two new cars we constantly had to do all the work, asking for prices, chasing for quotes, they really gave the distinct impression that things would be much better if we went away quietly and never returned. Truly spoiled the ownership experience. Getting the roadster repaired under warranty was so traumatic I refused to go inside ever again. A simple problem of failing ignition leads was constantly misdiagnosed and misrepaired. Each time the car went in for further (inaccurate work) not only did it not cure the problem, but taking it apart to fix the part that wasn’t faulty broke something else meaning it had to go back in for further repair and another attempt to fix the original problem. I finally said (through my Wife as by this point I couldn’t even talk to them on the ‘phone for fear of losing my temper in a way that I might later regret) “Just change the ignition leads, if only to satisfy my curiosity.” Ignition leads changed, car fixed. Apologies from the garage and red faces for their ‘technicians’. The experience left me unable to ever go back and I couldn’t face buying another smart even though I’d have loved another. Perhaps if smart had opened their own showrooms, or encouraged the dealerships not to look down their noses at smart customers they could have sold more (they would have sold at least one more – to me).

    I was registered with smart from the inception and subsequently have many of the early brochures and promotional material. The cars had much promise, but for me ruined by Mercedees.

    Sadly, our roadster has been sold. After nearly 100,00 miles, problems with the gearbox started and my Wife could no longer rely on it. What did she buy as a replacement? A new Twingo – the base vehicle for the latest smart. Same car, lower price, vastly superior customer experience.

  21. Spot on MkStevo
    When I changed my wiper motor I enclosed it a water tight plastic bag. The old one was completely corroded. It worked but made a huge racket.

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