Not Smart Enough (Part Two)

Smart’s struggles continue.

Faking it: 2005 Smart For four. Image: honestjohn.co.uk

By the turn of the millennium, the Smart City Coupé was established in the market and selling steadily, but Smart was far from being financially viable. Daimler urgently needed additional Smart models to broaden its market coverage.

A plan was formulated to develop a roadster and coupé on an extended version of the City Coupé’s platform, but that would be another niche offering and unlikely to sell in numbers that would significantly improve the company’s finances. What Smart really needed was a larger and more versatile four-seater city car. BMW’s successful relaunch of MINI in 2000 may well have influenced Daimler’s thinking in this regard.

With neither the time nor inclination to develop this model from scratch, Daimler looked to its new partner, Mitsubishi, with which it had entered into an alliance in 2000, taking a 34% stake in the Japanese automaker. A decision was made to rebody the forthcoming 2002 Z30-generation Mitsubishi Colt supermini using Smart’s signature design cues to create the Forfour(1).

Despite appearances, this was a wholly conventional B-segment supermini with a transverse engine and front-wheel-drive. The two-tone paint finish alluding to the Fortwo’s Tridion Safety Cell was no more than a cosmetic flourish. The Forfour was a Smart in name only(2) and was built by Mitsubishi alongside the Colt at the company’s NedCar(3) plant in Born, Netherlands.

 The Forfour was launched in early 2004. It was offered with a range of three and four-cylinder Mitsubishi petrol engines ranging from a 1,124cc 12-valve triple producing 63bhp (47kW) to a 1,499cc 16-valve four producing 107bhp (80kW). A 1,493cc 12-valve diesel triple(4) was also offered, producing either 67 or 94bhp (50 or 70kW). A Brabus version was fitted with a 1,468cc turbocharged four producing 174bhp (130kW).

What lies beneath: 2002 Mitsubishi Colt. Image: autocentrum.pl

Autocar magazine published its impressions of the 1.3-litre four-cylinder version of the Forfour in February 2004. First impressions were mixed: “Finger-wide panel gaps, particularly around the doors, lend the Forfour a tacked-together feel, but interior materials and surface finishes make the cabin the company’s most tactile yet.” Space and access were also compromised: “the back is just about big enough for a couple of adults, though access isn’t as easy as in some superminis. The Smart is smaller than the Colt in every dimension bar wheelbase, but not significantly lighter.”

The Forfour was, however, rather better to drive than other Smart models: “The wheel is just as uncommunicative and loath to self-centre as in other Smarts, but it does redirect the car briskly and accurately.”  The drivetrain was, however, a big disappointment: “the 1.3 engine’s boomy, gritty voice discourages prolonged hard use and the semi-automatic gearbox just about tolerable at low speeds and on light throttle openings but it can’t shift with the smoothness of a torque-converter ’box at other times.” The Forfour’s biggest issue was its expected price: “the mainstream range is likely to start at nearer £10,000, and that’s frankly far too high for anyone other than those determined to be different.”

The magazine followed up with impressions of the 1.1-litre triple a month later and found it to be a significantly better drive: “the boominess of the four cylinders disappears, as does the rather ordinary way it goes about its business. Instead, you get a real perkiness – the pleasing, hummy throb that only a three-cylinder petrol can provide – and a shade more flexibility at low revs.” The smaller and lighter engine also improved ride and handling, and the car “generally feels more supple. It resists understeer for longer, too.”

Competing against some excellent B-segment superminis like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo, the Forfour was too compromised by its Mitsubishi Colt(5) underpinnings and was too expensive. It sold poorly and production ended after three years. Total European sales were 123,809(6).

With production of both the Roadster and Forfour terminated, in 2007 Smart was again reliant on a single model, the Fortwo, total sales of which over eight years were around 770,000 for the first-generation model.

Spot the difference: 2007 Smart Fortwo. Image: theglobeandmail.com

A new, second-generation Fortwo was launched in November 2006. While it retained the highly distinctive styling of the original with its interchangeable plastic body panels, overall length increased by a substantial 195mm (7¾”) to 2,695mm (106”) while its wheelbase increased by 57mm (2¼”) to 1,867mm (73½”). A longer front overhang accounted for 72mm (2¾”) of the increase in overall length, to comply with revised pedestrian impact and US crash safety regulations.  The extra length, and the addition of seat-mounted side airbags and emergency brake assist, was intended to improve the car’s performance in Euro NCAP safety testing.

An immediate point of recognition for the new Fortwo was the rear light clusters. First-generation models had three separate light units on each side (or a single peanut-shaped unit on the convertible), whereas second-generation models had two light units either side, on both the fixed-head and convertible models.

The new model received a 999cc Mitsubishi inline three-cylinder petrol engine in normally aspirated 70bhp (52kW) and turbocharged 83bhp (62kW) forms. A Brabus version with a 101bhp (75kW) engine was also offered, as was an uprated 799cc turbodiesel producing 53bhp (40kW). The lower powered petrol engine was available with micro hybrid drive, a system comprising automated stop-start and a belt-driven motor generator, which charged the battery when braking and powered the car unaided at speeds up to 8km/h (5mph). The five-speed automated manual gearbox was carried over, albeit with uprated software for smoother gear changes.

Autocar tested the new car at launch. Its appearance was immediately familiar, although it looked “podgier and squatter” than before. Inside, the materials and fit were of a higher quality than previously, but the design was more conventional and “not as funky as it was before.” Leg and head room were “plentiful” and the large glass area made the interior feel “light and airy.” At 220 litres (7.77 cu.ft.) the boot was “bigger than before but still small.”

2007 Smart Fortwo Interior. Image: drivemag.com

The performance of the 70bhp engine was disappointing and described as “thoroughly…sluggish.” Maintaining motorway speeds was “harder work in a Smart than in its rivals, and less relaxing too, because it’s badly affected by crosswinds.” Regarding the gearchange, “Smart claims big improvements in shift speed and quality, but we didn’t find them, whether in full auto mode or when selecting gears ourselves.” The ride was noticeably improved “with half-decent bump absorption” but “still not as compliant or deft as its rivals.” The steering still felt “a little dead and is too heavy at parking speeds”, although power steering was available as an option.

Fuel consumption and CO2 figures were impressive, especially on the diesel with a claimed combined 85.6mpg (3.30 L/100km) and 86g/km. Comparative figures for the mild hybrid were 67.3mpg (4.20 L/100km) and 97g/km.

The Fortwo’s appeal, however, foundered on its high list price, from £9,200 to an eye-watering £16,500 for the Brabus cabriolet. Autocar awarded the car just two stars (out of five) overall and concluded that “many rivals offer much better interior space, clever packaging and, well, just fewer compromises for less money.”

This assessment must have been very disappointing for Smart. The new Fortwo, although an advance over its predecessor, was nowhere near enough improved to attract large numbers of new buyers to the marque.

The Smart story concludes in Part Three shortly.

(1) It might seem odd that Mercedes-Benz did not instead use the platform of its 1997 A-Class for the Forfour, given that both had a similar wheelbase. The A-Class’s was 2,423mm in SWB and 2,593mm in LWB form, compared with the Forfour’s 2,500mm. One must assume that the (loss-making) A-Class’s complex sandwich platform would have been too expensive for the Forfour.

(2) Although both it and the Colt were offered with the option of a revised version of the Smart automated manual gearbox.

(3) The NedCar plant had previously manufactured smaller Daf and Volvo models, and the 1995 Mitsubishi Carisma and 1998 Space Star MPV.

(4) This was a Mercedes-Benz engine, derived from the four-cylinder unit in the contemporary A-Class.

(5) Which Autocar described as “a thoroughly conventional (and far from perfect) supermini”.

(6) Sales data from www.carsalesbase.com

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

17 thoughts on “Not Smart Enough (Part Two)”

  1. The Smart ForTwo Mk2’s gearbox was a completely new item.
    The old gearbox was indeed a combination of two sets of gears in sequence, one three-speed and one dual-speed which was part of the reason for its slow shifting.
    The Mk2 gearbox was a conventional five speed item with much better mechanical characteristics. The new gearbox also was far more robust and gave less trouble than the old one which had a tendency for bearing troubles.

    1. Dave, you’re too harsh on the smarts. Have you had one ?
      I never heard of the mk1 gearbox giving any mechanical trouble. The clutch actuator Yes.
      And I’m in a few smart user groups both in the OK and Portugal.

  2. I drove a Smart ForTwo in 1999 (my first visit to lovely Koeln). The job interview was a bust and the car struck me as devoid of the basic pleasantness you`d wish for from such a neat little package. The undesteer stood out but I had not the critical faculties to spot the dead steering. Can we file this case along with Saturn? We also should recall the false dogma that every brand needs a large range of cars (if those cars disort the brand).

    1. Artificially growing a brand by adding models willy nilly has been the death knell of many, I think. A brand like Jaguar or Saturn could (or can) probably have been made financially viable with just one or a few models and equivalent sales expectations. However, in the case of Smart, as Daniel notes, developing this kind of car made no financial sense for the market size (however much they misread it initially). So in this case I can understand MB trying to find other viable models – though not that the one intended to sell the most had absolutely nothing to do with the original, but was tarted up to make it look like it did. Not to pre-empt the next installment, but the second attempt at a four door had much more in common with the ForTwo technically, but fared little better. Some brands (MINI – as stylized by bmw, sorry: BMW) seem pretty much immune to the effects of brand dilution, though.

      Incidentally, I’ve always thought the Colt looked remarkably like the first A class. They’re very different technical concepts, obviously, but it’s difficult to dismiss the notion of a little… inspiration flowing the way of the Colt (since that is the later design).


  3. Good evening all. I’m a bit late to my own party today. Every time I think of Smart, I cannot help but think how much better developed the Toyota iQ was in meeting a broadly similar brief. Better looking too, if less ‘funky’ IMHO:

    Would Mercedes-Benz have made a better job of Smart on their own from the outset? The evidence doesn’t suggest so.

    1. There was a lot of hype before the Smart was introduced. Almost as if the car had been completely re-invented. I have never driven a Smart except the Brabus Roadster, but it seems to me that when the For-Two arrived it was a disappointment in every way.

      The iQ’s introduction was quiet, but there was a lot of emphasis on the technological aspects of the car, like the flat gas tank, the rear airbag, the small airconditioning unit and the differential. There are probably more things, but this is what I can remember.

      I didn’t place any bets on whether the Smart or iQ would succeed. Just as well, in the end they both failed. Having said that I really like the iQ. It is small, quiet and restrained and I wish it was still with us today.

    2. Good morning Freerk. Out of curiosity, I took a look on AutoTrader UK yesterday for second-hand IQs. There are numerous examples, but the two that caught my eye were about twelve years old and had roughly 150k miles on the clock. Both looked pretty good, so it’s fair to assume that the iQ was no ‘toy car’ but built to Toyota’s usual standards for serious use.

    3. Our Aston Martin dealer around the corner has two luxury iQs called Cygnet on sale. Yours from € 40,000.

    4. Daniel there are pros and cons between the two cars, I’ve owned both and like each for different reasons. The IQ being wider and slightly longer provides plenty of shoulder room plus the possibility of carrying a third or fourth passenger, its hardly affected by cross winds, has an extremely short turn circle and is an all round super little car that’s well equipped and very refined.
      My daughter has had one for years, loves it and so do I. The one I owned was the triple with variable trans and I would have it again, very refined and no tax, especially like the colour of the one pictured.
      My Smarts are loved for different reasons, they are a more challenging driving experience, shorter, sit higher, are easier to climb in and out, have removable body panels, never seen any rust on one, take less space than a large motorcycle, can park anywhere and the diesel I have at present is better than the petrol version, torque! economy! no tax!

  4. After a bit of searching, I discovered that while the M134/M135 three and four cylinder petrol engines came from the all-new joint venture MDC Power factory in Kölleda in Thuringia, the Bwabus Smart ForFour uses a version of the 1977 -onwards Mitsubishi Orion.

    Proper Old Testament turbocharging; using an old over-engineered iron-block engine, rather a more modern, but potentially fragile all-aluminium unit.

  5. It is ironic that the Colt looks so much like the A-Class.

    The case of range extension is an interesting one. MINI have made a reasonable success of expanding their range, but the MINI is a pretty simple shape, and there were precedents to having estates, vans – even saloons (Riley and Wolseley).

    Volkswagen never really tried extending the new Beetle range beyond a convertible, and the Fiat 500 is providing to be difficult to build on, too. I guess that Smart just assumed that the original concept would be a massive success and then, well, job done.

    It wasn’t, which then raises the question of whether to pack it all in, or do something a bit more ‘normal’, like the Forfour. That then raises a further question regarding what the ‘more normal’ car’s USP will be, especially as the original revolutionary concept wasn’t as widely liked as expected.

    The original Forfour was portrayed as a very configurable mobile living room (‘lounge concept’) and I must say it looks great in the brochure. They mention it having the tridion safety cell, which might be stretching things a bit.

    https://www.veikl.com/d/Smart-ForFour-Brochure-UK-2004-EN-89970/57

    1. It’s a nice looking thing (nice stance, especially with those wheels), but claiming it has a tridion safety cell is politician-level ‘truthiness’, although in the brochure it looks like it’s just the name for the different coloured bit. As the road test indicated, it was basically a Colt in make up and the Colt wasn’t good enough a base to warrant that kind of price. It really is being stuck between a rock and a hard place: devote enough resources to make it convincing and you’ll never make money, skimp on the resources and people will see through it.

      The irony for Fiat is that the 600 and even 600 multipla (and at a stretch, the 850) are stylistically very much building on the 500, suggesting there may be more room than they have used. Maybe they should have called the 500X the 850 instead.

    2. The fact alone that they called one of the ForFour’s colours ‘phat red’ would have been reason enough for me not to buy such a car.

  6. Looking back at Daimler / Mercedes-Benz’s history of post WW2 mergers, alliances, joint ventures, and sub-brands it’s a catalogue of disasters; Auto Union, Mitsubishi, Ssangyong, Chrysler, Smart, Maybach, MTU.

    The only (relative) successes I can think of were Boehringer (Unimog), Hanomag-Henschel, Mitsubishi Fuso, and Freightliner.

    The only thing they seem to capable of doing well is making Mercedes-Benz cars, trucks, vans and buses, although these days it’s debatable in the case of the first.

  7. Getting back to the car itself…
    In and around Zürich there are plenty of Smarts of all generations, they were also used as hire cars for Swissair with snazzy red & silver stripes. I was intrigued to see if Mercedes could make a quality small car but seem to have missed the target somewhat. Maybe here people are willing to pay a bit more for something unique but not in the rest of the worls.
    I only know one family with one, a Mk2 and they seem very happy with it. This is used as a second car for the housewife to go shopping in…easy to park and manoeuvre, doesn’t take much space up in the garage etc. And this is where I think they are most used … as second cars for the better off, not city cars for city dwellers.
    My only personal experience was a 10 min drive in a Mk1 and I thought it was spacious, stylish but the gearbox was dreadful in both modes. I did look at Brabus Coupés for a while but the prices were excessive for what was on offer. Unless you were particularly keen on the style, I don’t see a reason to buy one of these, the MINI, Aygo, Cinquecento have got it more than covered, and then there’s all the features that Dave has mentioned, …Also… Finger Weg!
    Cheers
    Andrew

  8. Good evening to all, I have been late to the party, sorry. These smarts are common to see in this city. Most of them are the two seat variety. The four seat are not common. Never driven one, neither been a passenger. In Athens, the cars are not following a straight line, the drivers are trying to avoid the potholes that come in every shape and size. How come these cars with small road wheels and tight springs are comfortable I can not understand.

    1. I avoid potholes in any car as I would assume most aware drivers do. Tyre wheel, suspension
      and alignment damage is the result of not doing so.
      The Smart like like many other cars with limited suspension movement is more affected by potholes however they are more maneuverable enabling drivers the choice of avoiding them.

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