Smart ForFour

Premium-priced city-car returns with rear engine

JOHN CAREY

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

SMARTíS new ForFour isnít the first. The Daimler-owned city-car specialist did it once before, in 2004. That car was essentially a front-drive was essentially a front-drive Mitsubishi Colt wearing a thin veneer of Smart-ness.

Built in a factory in Holland jointly owned (at the time) by Mitsubishi and Volvo, it shared nothing in common with the contemporary ForTwo. It failed to sell and was dropped after barely three years.

This time round, Smart has done something smarter.

The second ForFour shares drivetrains, major interior components including the instrument panel, and much of its body and chassis structure with the third-generation ForTwo.

Thanks to a co-operation deal inked between Daimler and the Renault-Nissan Alliance, the new ForFour is also a technical twin of the equally new Twingo. Both are manufactured at a Renault factory in Novo Mesto, Slovenia. However, thereís no Renault relative of the two-seat ForTwo, which continues to be made in Smartís own plant in Hambach, France.

Although the rear-engine and rear-drive layout has been out of small-car fashion for decades, itís been a trademark of Smartís stubby two-seaters since 1998.

And it makes good sense for the revived ForFour.

With the engine tucked between the rear wheels, the front wheels are free to swing through a greater steering arc. The new ForFour is just under 3.5 metres long (700mm longer than the ForTwo) and has a turning circle of only 8.7 metres.

This isnít the Smartís only trick. The ForFour may be tiny, but its rear doors swing open to almost 90 degrees for easy access.

While the pair of rear seats isnít sprawlingly roomy, there is a lot of useful space inside.

The ForFourís (and ForTwoís) Renault-developed, transversemounted three-cylinder engines (see sidebar) are teamed with a five-speed manual and a new six-speed dual-clutch automatic.

The larger but less powerful naturally aspirated 1.0-litre seems a sweeter engine than the 0.9-litre turbo, with more precise throttle response. But the additional thrust of the elastic little 0.9-litre turbo was welcome among rushing Spaniards in Barcelona. On roads outside the city, the ForFour was easily able to cruise quietly at 120km/h.

Ride comfort is remarkable for something so small, but the handling fails to deliver any of the snappy agility expected from a rear-engined car and the electrically assisted steering is slow, light and lifeless, just like the steering in a ForTwo.

Smartís engineers have set up the suspension Ė front struts, de Dion axle at the rear Ė for safe and sound understeer, but the steering fails to inform of the onset of front-end slip. It could have been so much betterÖ Where the ForFour succeeds most emphatically is design.

Some minor details are shared with Renault Ė door handles, column stalks, gearknob, centre touchscreen Ė but thatís hardly an issue. The interior is a colourful environment thatís visually entertaining and remarkably useful, while the two-tone exterior offers ample scope for self-expression.

Itís a very different city-car formula than the cheap and cheerless fare Australians are used to. In the new Smart fourseater you can see, hear and feel reasons to pay more for something so small, even at the potential $22,000 starting price in Australia for the 1.0-litre manual.

Unlike the first ForFour, this one deserves to survive.

PLUS & MINUS

Slow and feel-free steering; handling; fat A-pillars; expensive Ride; interior class; refinement; turning circle; dual-clutch gearbox

01 SLIDE AWAY

Chrome-ringed magnifying slider for temperature control is just one of the neat touches inside the Smart.

02 CONNECTING

Optional large touchscreen display is excellent. Free Smart Cross Connect app delivers impressive integration of phone and car functions via Bluetooth.

03 REMAIN SEATED

ĎTombstoneí front seats are comfortable and supportive.

They use the same basic structure as in the Mercedes- Benz A-Class and B-Class, according to a Smart engineer.

French smarts

SMARTíS new threecylinder engines Ė 52kW 999cc naturally aspirated and 66kW 898cc turbo Ė are related to the Renault triple in the Clio IV.

The French company redesigned the engine for the Twingo and Smartís ForFour, tilting it 49 degrees from vertical to fit beneath the rear cargo compartment floor.

Smart engineers, working with transmission specialist Getrag, handled development of the new six-speed dual-clutch gearbox, which is a lightweight at only 68kg.

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