Smart drive

By Richard Yarrow

I have been lucky enough to drive many wonderful cars in my career as a motoring journalist. But none has created as much of a stir as the original Smart ForTwo – or the City Coupé as it was known then – going from home to office through north London in early 1998. Not available to buy at that point, this was the only one in the country. Talk about a head-turner! People actually knocked on the windows to ask what it was as I sat at traffic lights.

More than 100,000 UK sales later, this year sees the launch of the third-generation car. It’s new from the ground up and comes with the second-generation ForFour in tow. They have been designed and built together as siblings, unlike the last four-seater – axed in 2006 – which was a reskinned Mitsubishi Colt.

Perhaps surprising is how close the two cars are in price; they are available from £11,125 and £11,620 respectively, and I suspect some customers will walk into a Smart dealership wanting a ForTwo and come away with a ForFour because of the extra practicality two more doors and seats offers. On monthly finance it’s about £10 extra.

Worth noting is that the ForFour is about £2,000 more expensive than the Renault Twingo with which it shares an architecture. Smart says that’s because it’s got extra features and has been re-engineered to make it more refined. The evidence from my test drive suggests that has worked; I wasn’t a big fan of how the Twingo soaked up the bumps, but the Smart is much better. Money has also been spent on making it more practical, so the rear doors open to almost 90 degrees to aid access.

I also drove the 1.0-litre 71bhp ForTwo with the five-speed manual gearbox – a first for Smart as they’ve all been automatics before – and felt it did a good job. However, I didn’t like the steering; it’s fine at urban speeds but on the open road the wheel lacked weight as it turned, leaving me with a feeling that it wasn’t connected to what was happening at the road surface. The second engine is a 900cc 90bhp turbo, and both come in three trim levels – Passion, Prime and Proxy.

Smart Gateshead-14

The entry spec includes 15-inch eight-spoke alloy wheels, automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and a choice of orange/black or white/black interior. Buy the Proxy and you get a sports leather multi-function steering wheel, suspension lowered by 10mm, rubber studded alloy sports pedals and a chrome exhaust finisher.

The ForTwo’s USP continues to be its size and agility. At just 2.69 metres long it has a tiny turning circle, but the trade-off it is the microscopic boot behind the split tailgate.

You’ll have seen the TV advert for the ForTwo and ForFour, which is unusual in that it features both cars. Smart says they are distinct models, but admits that while the brand has been around for 17 years, launching two new versions at the same time is uncharted territory. It doesn’t really know what the sales split between the cars will be. Given the growth in popularity of funky small cars since 1998, I suspect both will sell well.

Panel story

Do you remember all the warnings about using your mobile phone on a fuel forecourt? For years we’ve been led to believe it could turn us, our car and everyone in a 100-metre radius, into crispy bacon.

But all that seems to have been conveniently forgotten. Fuel giant Shell has partnered with PayPal to become the first of the big forecourt operators to offer smartphone pump payments.

To be launched later this year via Android and iOS apps, the driver pulls up at a vacant pump. Geo-location means the phone knows which site you’re at, so you simply select the pump number on the app and how much you fuel you want. It authenticates the transaction and by the time you’ve filled up a receipt has been sent to the phone. Job done.

Shell says it’s about offering choice and convenience to customers. It reckons they might include busy parents who want the ease of remaining by their vehicle with their children, to those in a rush who want to fuel up and pay as quickly as possible. The vast majority of the company’s 1,000 service stations are taking part.

Personally, I like a trip into the shop to pay. It means I can have a quick look at the newspaper front pages or treat myself to a coffee.

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