The verdict: Michael Booth feels that the Smart car may have missed its ideal market. But are our readers laughing at it or with it?
he fact that the Micro Compact Car company has designed its unique city car, the Smart, to appeal to the young and design-conscious urbanite, could well have alienated potentially its biggest market: wrinklies. I can see why the company pulled out all the stops to distance its Smart from the motorised wheelchair image of previous micro cars. Invalidity isn't glamorous, invalidity isn't very ad-man friendly. Nubile young things leading hectic but impeccably colour-coded lifestyles, are.

But is the Smart a young person's car? Verdicter Tess put her finger on it when she pointed out that the young are more sociable than the two- seater Smart allows. They go out, they party, they drink (hopefully making any car redundant), they like to get out of the city and go windsurfing and other such vigorous pursuits. They also like to drive faster than the three-cylinder 599cc, rear-engined Smart can manage (top speed is 87mph; acceleration is barely noticeable).

Senior citizens - on the other hand - tend not to have to transport large numbers of friends and family and own fewer surfboards. The 2.5-metre- long Smart's easy-park compactness, wide-access doors, and user-friendliness seem tailor-made for those of vertiginous years, but somehow I don't think they are going to fall for "boomerang orange" trim or Fisher-Price-style fittings. That aside, is the Smart a realistic solution to inner-city congestion? Sadly no. In fact for me, it ranks with the Mercedes M-Class and Ford Cougar as one of the worst cars we have tested.

You have a choice (exercised by pressing a button) of driving the Smart in automatic mode, or using its sequential shift - where you change up by moving the lever forward, and down by pulling it back - but with both techniques the gearbox is hopelessly ponderous. The steering, meanwhile, is too heavy, and the ride is unbearable, sending unwanted details about every lick of road paint through your hands and bum. (Speed bumps become Alpine obstacles - not ideal for a city car.) Among fast-moving traffic you feel constantly at risk of becoming the filling in a pantechnicon sandwich. As for scything through gridlock, a traffic jam is still a traffic jam until you're on a bike.

The final damnation is that at pounds 8,689 for the top-of-the-range "Smart and Passion" version we tried (prices start from pounds 6,500), the Smart is uncompetitively priced against more practical and frugal rivals like the Seat Arosa, Ford Ka or Toyota Yaris.

Groping for something charitable to say, the Smart is exceptionally well made for a small car; there are some neat design touches like the removable exterior panels for when you feel like a change of colour; and passenger space is good. What it does best is turn heads, but you get the sense that people are laughing at rather than with you.

The rest of Europe seems to agree. MCC (a satellite company of Mercedes- Benz) has halved sales forecasts for the Smart. That, combined with initial handling problems must make the Smart one of the most disastrous car launches since the Edsel Ford. It is currently available only by private import. I suspect that's how it will remain. What a shame, your mother could have loved it

Tess Lobo, 62, part-time secretary, from Ealing, London. Currently drives a Peugeot 205

"It's good value for money and, if I were able to have two cars, I might think about it. The trouble is there's no room for any luggage. I got it up to a good speed on the A40 and it handled well, felt safe and was quiet enough for me to chat to my passenger easily. It's well made, the feel of the doors shutting is nice, and there are lots of small spaces to put things. Legroom is excellent - six footers would be quite comfortable. I couldn't really get to grips with the automatic shift, but you might get used to that. It did puzzle me who would buy it because not many middle-aged people would like the interior, and for young girls there's not enough space to take their friends to Brighton with all their luggage. I don't think men will go for it, it's not very macho, so it's hard to know who they're aiming it at."

Christopher Morgan, 32, location manager, from Notting Hill, London. Currently drives a Honda Prelude

"It's certainly very novel, there are some nice touches in the design, like the layout of the instruments with those two pods on top of the dash. I'd be happy to be seen in it, it's different and intelligent enough to stand out. But it's not all that practical. I use my car for work so I need a bit more room than this, plus, I do a lot of jobs in the countryside and I'd rather shoot myself than take this on a three-hour drive. I don't think it will have mass appeal but it's quite good value - it might catch on with the fashion victims of Notting Hill. The problem is it's really under-powered, and there's far too much delay in the sequential change - the only point of that is to have quicker shifts. If I won it in a competition I'd hang on to it, it's going to become collectible."

Victoria Bishop, 37, PR marketing advisor to the wine industry, from Holland Park, London. Currently drives an Audi Cabriolet

"It's not my sort of car. The suspension is lumpy, you feel every ridge of the road and the steering was very heavy. The acceleration was poor and I've never experienced so much difficulty getting a car into reverse. The sequential change is bizarre, your brain and your left foot find it very difficult to get out of the habit of working together - it's best just to leave it in auto. Gear changes were noisy too but I did like the dash and, despite the size, I didn't feel crammed in. But it wouldn't be practical for me because I often need to get cases of wine in the boot. This would be a luxury purchase to transport two passengers and nothing else, people who live solely in a big city - trendy young people."

Lee Stevens, "middle-aged", record reviewer for the BBC, from Maida Vale, London. Currently carless

"You can park it on a sixpence. It's nippy and very comfortable, very easy to drive, delightful. It's good on petrol. I think it would make a lot of sense for Londoners or anyone living in a congested city or anyone who hates traffic jams. You do feel a bit vulnerable on motorways when everyone is doing 80mph and great big haulage lorries go by. It's definitely well made and classy. The design is beautiful - if you stop at traffic lights you get lots of looks and questions: `Is it a Noddy car?'; `Is it a Pope-mobile?'. Once you drive it you become a better driver automatically because the car is only available in left-hand drive so you've got to be more careful. I'd give it 90 out of 100."

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