Smart’s struggles continue.
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).
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.
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.”
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