The Smart Fortwo is a car that almost defies comparison. Should you try to put it up against typical citycars, it's often found wanting objectively, but this much-improved third-generation car builds on the appeal of its predecessors and finds itself occupying an increasingly premium niche. There's a lot to like about it.
The shortcomings of the last Smart Fortwo didn't take a genius to identify. It had grown expensive for what it offered, there were newer and trendier citycar alternatives available, practicality was an issue, the transmission had always been woeful, the engine wasn't particularly great and it handled pretty much how you'd expect such a short and tall vehicle to. Clearly there was work to do, but Smart could only rectify so much. The size and thus the space inside were constrained by the form factor. The way the car handled would, to a greater or lesser degree, also be a function of that philosophy. Still, it's fair to say the latest third-generation Fortwo has the capacity to surprise even the most jaded Smart-cynic. Developed in partnership with Renault, the Fortwo shares some of its underpinnings with the longer Twingo but in no way do the two cars share a common feel. If you'd quite fancied a Smart but never got on with the jerky transmission and unsettled ride, it's time to press the reset button.
The Fortwo is offered with two engines, both three-cylinder petrol-powered units. The 899cc turbocharged engine develops 89bhp, while the 999cc normally aspirated engine a mere 70bhp. Torque figures are 135 and 90Nm respectively. The 999cc powerplant isn't quick at all. The 'sprint' to 62mph is a leisurely 14.4 second amble but the throttle response is a bit more faithful than in the more surging turbocharged car. That may make city driving that bit more relaxing, as indeed will the updated transmission. Gone is the vile robotised manual change that had your head jerking about like a Thunderbird puppet with each gearchange. In its place comes a much preferable five-speed manual box with a six-speed twin-clutch automatic following on its heels. The suspension delivers far more refinement than before, which belies the fact that the car's length hasn't changed at all. What has changed is the fact that it's 11cm wider, and that extra track width offers a bit more of a reassuring feel when cornering. The turning circle remains tiny at just 6.95m, and because there are no driveshafts going to the front wheels, they can be angled right out to 45 degrees, which makes the Fortwo able to undertake even the most optimistic-looking parking manoeuvre.
The pan-faced visage of the latest Fortwo is a big departure from the somewhat feline look of the two prior Fortwo models. The tridion safety cell - something of a Smart trademark - is present and correct, so people won't be confused about what they're looking at. A characteristic swage line is followed by the fuel filler cap on the right and the air inlet for the rear engine under the B-pillar on the left. Side rubbing strips shuck off car park knocks. Where previous Fortwos have been quite slab-sided, Smart's designers have this time attempted to massage a bit of shape into the flank of the Fortwo with an almost Volvo-style shoulder line that's most apparent as it melds into the rear light cluster. The cabin features as many quirky touches as you can stomach and it's good to see Smart pushing the boat out a bit with colours and textures, including a 'technical mesh' finish. At the prices charged, this should be a car that feels premium and different to the usual citycar norm. There's even a bit more luggage space on offer with a capacity of 260-litres to the parcel shelf and 350-litres when stacked to the roof.
The Fortwo range opens at just over £11,000 for the 999cc models, with the 899cc turbo versions starting at a little under £12,000. Those figures are both for cars with the manual gearchange as standard. Choose to opt for the dual-clutch and that'll add around £1,000 to the asking price. Already the Fortwo is starting to get into the realms of a very respectable supermini; something like a Volkswagen Polo for instance. The entry-level 'Passion' trim level gets eight-spoke 15-inch alloys, automatic climate control, Bluetooth and an orange/black or white/black interior theme. The 'Prime' trim will set you back around £700 more, for which you get 15-inch black rims, panoramic glass roof, black leather upholstery, lane-keeping assist, heated seats and extra dashboard instrument pods with a cockpit clock and rev counter. Alternatively you can choose the 'Proxy' trim for the same price, which features Y-spoke black 16-inch alloy wheels, a blue & white interior, a sports leather multifunction steering wheel, 10mm lowered suspension, chrome exhaust finisher and rubber-studded alloy pedals. Also on offer is the 'Premium' package (for around £800) and the 'Premium Plus' package (for around £1,300). These bring features like navigation, a height-adjustable heated steering wheel, electrically-adjustable mirrors, ambient lighting, LED headlights, a rearview camera, a 'coming home' function and rain & light sensors. There's even rear parking assist, but if you need extra help in parking a Smart Fortwo, you're probably best off sticking to a push bike.
The fuel economy of the Fortwo has caused a bit of a debate in the office with some feeling that it's not as impressive as it perhaps ought to be. It's certainly not a fuel hog, with the 999cc engine turning in a combined figure of 68.9mpg and the 899cc turbo recording 67.3mpg, but when a much bigger car like a petrol Polo can record numbers in the sixties too, the Fortwo looks as if it's dragging its heels a tad. By contrast, a Volkswagen Up! with 75PS and rear seats can get better than 67mpg, while coming in at less than £12k. Emissions for the Fortwo are rated at 93g/km for the 999cc unit and 97g/km for the 899 turbo three-pot. Where the car looks likely to score over its less charismatic rivals is in terms of resale value. Despite this, it's hard to make a case for the Fortwo on a purely financial basis against the best citycars.
In order to buy the style statement and the extreme manoeuvrability of the Smart Fortwo, you need to make quite a few compromises. Granted, the car does drive a lot better than before and it's even a bit more practical, but it just can't level with the sustained excellence of the latest crop of citycars. It's been a niche product to date and while the latest car is a bit more rounded, it'll stay that way. Smart recognises this and has moved to make the interior feel as special as a premium-priced product deserves. This is a wise move but there's still something about the Fortwo that smacks of a missed opportunity; a hugely ambitious dream of future sustainable transport that's somehow become rather arch, boutique hipster fare. That it'll find a ready market we have no doubt, but that market is limited in size, if not willingness to pay. Smart needs to make the Fortwo very special if it's to succeed. This looks like a promising step in the right direction.