Losing your car keys is an accepted form of temporary idiocy, but misplacing your whole car smacks of sheer carelessness.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s January 2004 issue
In the case of the smart roadster, however, it’s not always your fault. All too often you leave it parked somewhere and when you return it appears to have vanished, leading to momentary palpitations.
If there’s a stiff breeze blowing, your first thought is that it might have blown away; after all, it only weighs about the same as a burly American linebacker: 790kg. Generally, though, someone has just parked something next to it, like a wheelie bin, a bicycle or perhaps a skateboard, obscuring it entirely.
Yes, the smart roadster is small (3223mm long and 1170mm high) – so small that it looks like it should come free with a Happy Meal. And, like most McToys, it’s also as cute as a butt on a supermodel.
And don’t the kids love it, the only problem being that they think it’s so obviously from a cartoon that they expect you to climb out of it wearing spandex.
The smart’s smart looks are beloved of all ages, though. Women smile at it, men are keen to enquire whether it runs on fuel or a wind-up key system and larger dogs try to have sex with it.
The yellow and black version we patiently piloted from Melbourne to Adelaide looked like a cross between Wolverine from X Men and the beach buggies the Banana Splits used to drive, but it did grow on us – even the distinctly Japanime rear lights.
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With the original smart – which looks like a shopping trolley gone mad – much fuss was made about how it’s so short that you can park two of them in a single car space. With the roadster you have to be bolder to save on parking fees, but it’s still possible – just squeeze it under the nearest Land Cruiser.
Fold yourself inside, listen to the recyclable plastic doors shutting with the reassuring clack of two Lego pieces being pushed together and you’ll find that it’s not exactly roomy – although head room is surprisingly good.
The centre stack is so small that there’s only room for four radio presets rather than the standard six, the sun visors are about the size of hot dog rolls and the glovebox gives new literality to the term. You might get a pair of gloves in it, but only if they’re surgical standard.
The interior is an interesting mix of hard and soft surfaces, bottomed off by a floor covering that appears to be a synthetic version of pubic hair.
While it is niche small, the roadster is not uncomfortable. The seats are supportive enough, if a little narrow across the shoulders, and while it may look as if it’s made from Fisher Price spare parts, it feels remarkably solid on most surfaces.
The ride isn’t as rattly as you would expect for a vehicle with the suspension travel of an office chair, but really big bumps will upset both the car and its CD player, turning Powderfinger into a rap group.
The exception to the comfort level is the footwell, which has no room for a footrest and very little room for the pedals. Imagine squeezing both your feet into one shoe and you’ll get the idea. About 800km into our journey, I was beginning to wonder whether anyone had ever suffered DVT from driving a car.
But then the smart roadster was clearly not designed for long journeys. It’s a city car, and it’s in the salubrious suburbs that it will win many fans with its looks and its nifty sardine can-style roof, which can be opened and closed on the run at any speed.
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True to its toy form, you can also change its shape by removing the door rails for fully exposed posing… sorry, motoring. Like a Transformer, the spare bits fit neatly into storage slots in the front boot, reducing the already negligible storage space to stuff all.
If your bag fits in the overhead lockers of a plane, you might get it in – but only if you get a hippo to sit on it first. There’s also space for a very small bag in the boot on top of the teeny tot 698cc three-cylinder suprex turbo engine. This Matchbox car powerplant produces a humble 60kW – about the same as a high-quality electric toothbrush.
Thanks to the low weight, however, the power is almost enough. The smart is never going to set the world on fire – in fact, looking at the figures (0-100 in 10.9sec), you’d be surprised if it set a match on fire – but it’s grunty enough to have some harmless fun. As in harmless to your wallet and your licence.
Left in automatic mode, the six-speed Softouch ’box changes gear like you probably did when you were 16 and nine months old. It feels like some giant kid has decided to pinch the rear of the car and pull it back each time it kangaroo kicks up.
In manual mode it’s possible to have some fun, though. At first the gearbox still feels as snatchy as a two-year-old at Christmas, but you quickly master it. The brake pedal is set unusually left of centre, which encourages left-foot braking and allows you to give it the good rev it needs on each downchange.
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The other technique you develop is to keep a close eye on the redline, because when you slam into it, regularly, at 6000rpm, the gearbox changes up on you automatically. This can be disconcerting, to say the least, because when it happens mid-corner it feels like someone has tucked your engine under their arm and run off with it and you are left floating until the boost picks up again in the next gear.
Keep it in the sweet spot between 3500rpm and 5500rpm, though, and you can have a wonder ball of a time. A combination of the light weight, delectable steering and an engine noise that’s disproportionately loud compared to the power it’s actually producing make it a hoot on the bends of the Great Ocean Road. It also gives off the most wonderful turbo chirrup, which sounds like the noise the velociraptors make in Jurassic Park.
Better yet, the roadster feels like it’s going ballistic at low, legal speeds. There’s a lot of road noise, exacerbated by the tyres being half an inch from your ears, and sitting a couple of millimetres off the road also adds to the illusion that you’re flying. While 100km/h is comfortable, 140km/h feels like you’re making an ill-fated attempt at the land speed record.
In these straitened times, and particularly if you’re unlucky enough to live in the ‘smile, you’re on speed camera’ state of Victoria, the smart roadster could save you a lot of money. In fact, it could even make the ideal Clayton’s sports car.
Unfortunately, it’s an expensive way to save, because big daddy Mercedes-Benz is asking $37,990, which works out at about $48 a kilogram. Any way you look at it, it’s a hell of a lot for a toy car. You might want to wait for the adults-only Brabus-spec version, with 76kW, which should arrive next year.
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2004 Smart Roadster
BODY: 2-door roadster
ENGINE: 700cc turbo three-cylinder SOHC 6-valve
POWER: 60kW @ 5250rpm
TORQUE: 110Nm @ 2250-4500rpm
BORE/STROKE: 66.5mm x 67.0mm
TRANSMISSION: six-speed semi-auto
SUSPENSION: MacPherson struts, wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); de Dion tube with central mount, coil springs (r)
TRACK: 1357mm (f), 1392mm (r)
BRAKES: discs, single-piston calipers (f); drums (r), ABS, ESP
WHEELS: 15 x 5.0-inch (f & r), alloy
TYRES: Continental, 185/55 R15 (f & r)
FUEL: 35 litres, PULP