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Smart ForFour; little car, big money


Smart - the car - is decidedly funky. The original two-seater car, launched in Europe in 2008 and in South Africa four years later, was as funky as funky can get with its 2.5 metre-long body making extensive use of plastic panels clipped to a strong steel passenger cell, and housing a tiny rear-mounted 600 cc turbocharged three cylinder engine, mated to an abysmal six-speed automatic transmission that never seemed to know what it wanted to do.

The concept of the Smart city car dreamed up by Swatch, the Swiss watch manufacturer, was good, but the cars never sold in big numbers here. The range stretched in more ways than one to include four seaters and even a sexy little roadster, but sales remained disappointing.

Sweet as it was, the Smart was perceived to be too expensive for most pockets. The factory - now owned wholly by Mercedes-Benz - persists with the notion that writing the name without any capital letters makes it even more cute, but I disagree, so I'll tell you about the recently launched second-generation Smart ForFour rather than the smart forfour.

The altogether brand new Smart - also available in ForTwo guise - is an interesting little car. The one delivered to me was the ForFour 52 kW manual with a gruff little three-cylinder one-litre naturally-aspirated petrol engine that's good for 91 Nm of torque at 2 850 rpm.

There are also 900 cc turbocharged versions that deliver 66 kW and 135 Nm, with the option of an automatic dual-clutch transmission.

As with previous Smarts, the engines are mounted in the rear and the front fenders are made of plastic, but the doors and other panels are not. The new Smart was developed jointly by Mercedes-Benz and Renault, with the French company's Twingo sharing about 70 percent of the Smart's components and the two brands being built side-by-side in Slovenia.

Before you recoil in horror, bear in mind that Renault also supplies engines for various Mercedes-Benz A, B and C-Class models.

The test car turned out to be very likeable. I enjoyed the styling and the interior is - here's that word again - funky, with big, brash controls on the steering wheel and decent switchgear sensibly laid out. It's pleasant and seemingly durable, although older folk could consider it gaudy in parts.

 The test car came with loads of luxury and safety features, but most of them were expensive options that would push the car's price into ridiculously expensive territory.  The standard ForFour 52 kW Passion version retails at a not unreasonable R199 900, which could grow by tens of thousands if you tick too many boxes when placing your order. One unforgivable omission in my eyes is that of a spare wheel - there is none.

The three-cylinder engine does a good enough job of keeping the car up to speed on the freeway, although it's by no means a hot hatch. The factory makes no performance claims, but various testers have come up with 0-100km/h times of around 16.5 seconds and a top speed approaching 155 km/h.

That sounds pretty lethargic, but it really doesn't feel that slow, and it should be borne in mind that this is by design a straight-forward city car.

The five-speed gearbox works well, the ride is firm but pliant, the car is very nimble, and the ForFour has about the tightest turning circle of any car I've ever driven. Fuel consumption under my leaden hoof worked out at 5.1 L/100km, which is pretty good for me.

The Smart ForFour leaves me with mixed feelings. It's a very likeable little car but doesn't offer as much interior space as its rivals, and it's expensive for what you're getting. If it's value-for-money you're after, I'd suggest you look elsewhere, but if you have the money and enjoy something that's a little exclusive, the Smart will not disappoint.

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