smart roadster-coupe (2004)
Our Rating

3/5

smart roadster-coupe (2004)

A rock 'n' roll car, and not in a good way.

We covered the launch of the smart roadster and roadster-coupé back in September, and made the point that, although we drove only the former, there wasn't likely to be much difference between the two in terms of driving impressions.A roadster-coupé has now been with us for about three weeks, and indeed it feels pretty much like the cheaper version. The coupé is a little more expensive because of the hardtop and glass fastback arrangement, and the extra weight of these over the roadster's folding soft-top roof make the coupé slightly slower and less economical too, though not to an extent that you'd notice if you drove the two cars several months apart.Visual appeal is one of the main selling points for smart. Its cars all look like 21st-century designs, a phenomenon which is still quite rare in the industry. The roadster-coupé is perhaps the best-looking car in the range, if you think that its tail is more satisfactory than that of the ordinary roadster. Onlookers were captivated by the shape, and one friend who accepted the offer of a lift was thrilled at the chance to experience the inside of what looked like a miniature racing car.The coupé's design allows for more luggage space (still a modest amount, though) but it also creates a problem with rearward vision. The difficulty is exactly the same as you would find with an Audi A2: two areas of glass - one steeply angled, the other almost vertical - separated by an opaque panel which blocks out a larger proportion of the view than you might expect. In the smart's case neither window has a wiper, and the vertical one in particular picks up road dirt very quickly. On bad days you're better off using the door mirrors to see behind you.Living with a smart for weeks rather than, as on the launch event, driving one for a few hours, gave more opportunity to experience the interior. You have to be reasonably supple to get in, since the car sits so low, but once installed you have a lot of space to move around in, a feature the roadsters share with the city cars. Not much space to put things in, though - the glove compartment, for example, will not close if you try to make it hold as much as a single CD.The extended test also gave time for a long-term investigation of the trip computer, whose screen is mounted very low on the centre console. There are many functions, some of which (outside temperature, fuel range) are of a practicable and useful nature. Most of them, however, I could have done without. I didn't, for example, feel the need to peer at the screen to discover engine speed to the nearest 25rpm when there was a perfectly acceptable analogue revcounter straight in front of me.There does seem to be a general tendency to fit devices whose use is questionable. I'm not sure I would ever want to use the speed limiter, and in fact I can imagine this being quite dangerous in some situations. But perhaps I was put off by the concept at an early stage, when I accidentally switched on the limiter. I was doing about 50mph at the time, the limiter was set to 26mph, and I thought the engine was about to die on me.Then there's the question of the transmission. There have been many complaints in CARkeys about electronically-controlled manual gearboxes (on any car so fitted, not just smarts) so I won't go through the whole discussion again here. Suffice to say that the smart system is as bad as all the others, smooth changes requiring more care and concentration than they do with a standard manual box.Apart from aspects I consider silly, I do quite like the smart sports cars, but there is a major flaw common to them both. They are meant to be fun to drive, and up to a point they are. In town they are very nimble, but on the open road they become quite worrying. It's almost as if the handling had been optimised for about 40mph, and that smart had decided to dissuade owners from driving any more quickly.I'm embarrassed to admit that I couldn't put my finger on what was causing this at the launch event, though perhaps not as embarrassed as the smart people should be for allowing the cars into production in this form. The problem . . . and this may seem odd considering the roof of the car is at about thigh level . . . the problem is that it sits too high. There is a huge gap between the wheels and the arches, and it looks as if the car could sit about two inches lower on its suspension than it actually does.When cars are too high they rock and they roll. They lurch into corners and their steering is affected as much by undulations in the road surface as by anything you do at the wheel. The smart roadster and roadster-coupé both do this. They should zip round corners with great ease, instead of which they teeter round nervously. Even in fairly gentle driving conditions they seem just one step away from an accident, and while I'm sure the ESP safety system will do its best to prevent this (and the tridion safety cell will be a useful thing to have if the worst happens), I'd rather the basic set-up made such an event less likely than it seems to be at the moment.Several times during this test I remembered Guido Moch, whom I met at an event back in 1992. That day Moch was acting in his capacity as the Mercedes-Benz defensive driving coach (he was the only tutor I have ever met who could stand comparison with CARkeys columnist John Stevens), but he was also a chassis expert who had been largely responsible for the excellent handling of Mercedes products over many years. Moch retired not long afterwards, so he can't have had anything to do with the smart brand. A pity, because on current evidence smart needs him - or somebody like him - very badly indeed.Second opinion: There's no doubt that the market can do with a fair selection of small and lightweight sports cars. It's remarkable what straightline performance an 0.7-litre three-cylinder engine - rear-mounted, too - can provide when fitted with a turbocharger. Actually, although the coupé is a bit slower off the mark than the open version, the improved aerodynamics give it an advantage in top speed. Both types also have impressive economy figures. However, there's no doubt that a fairly simple rethink would improve the handling here, and although the three-mode clutchless transmission has many subtle features - hill start control, and all the rest - I would trade the whole shebang for a straightforward manual gearbox with a stubby floor lever. When the roadster and the roadster-coupé were introduced, I seem to remember the suggestion that they were something like modern counterparts of the Austin-Healey Sprite. Maybe that car's 21st-century equivalents are more like the fairly straightforward Ford Streetka and Daihatsu Copen rather than the very complex smart. Ross Finlay. Engine 698cc, 3 cylinders Power 80bhp Fuel/CO2 55.4mpg / 121g/km Acceleration 0-62mph: 11.2 seconds Top speed 113mph Price £14,513 Details correct at publication date

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