Motoring: Road Test: Smart, as in funky but chic

Swatch and Mercedes linked up to build a revolutionary mini-car. Swatch pulled out, but Mercedes finished the job.

I'm in a Shell petrol station, glossy, high-tech, brand new, fully configured for customer loyalty incentives. "Do you have a Shell Smart Card?" No, but I have a Smart car. Puzzlement, suspicion at my apparent showing-off, then incredulity as the reality is revealed. It's the normal reaction. People point, stare, smile, not believing that such a tiny car, seemingly as tall and wide as it is long, is actually useable and driveable.

Well, it is. And to prove the point, Planet Moto, one of several UK importers of the happy-faced Smart, sells about four a week. Not bad for a car which wasn't meant to be sold in the United Kingdom at all.

You may have seen Smart Centers in Europe. They are a remarkable sight, giant glass boxes containing Smarts stacked above each other on seven floors, but you won't see them here. The company that should set them up has elected not to do so because, it says, there would not be enough demand. That company is Mercedes-Benz. It inherited the original design idea from the Swatch watch people, then Swatch pulled out and Mercedes was left to develop the car and the Micro Compact Car factory (it's in France) alone.

European sales have not been as high as hoped, all the more reason, you'd think, to sell it here. In the meantime, Planet Moto has forged links with a Smart Center, and its mechanics are trained there.

Among car cognoscenti, a Smart is a cool thing to own. Stirling Moss and Ralf Schumacher each have one, so does the designer of the McLaren F1 supercar and many past Formula One cars, Gordon Murray. A Smart is not cheap for something with just two seats and a 599cc engine, but that is not the point. It is billed as the Smart City-Coupe, the solution to the urban congestion nightmare, but it is more than that. Forty years on, the Smart re-enacts the Mini's split roles of transport, toy and wheel reinvention.

So I'm sitting in a Smart, re-programming my notions of what a car is supposed to be. It's left-hand drive, but you sit high, with a panoramic view out of the little vehicle, so it doesn't matter. The seat backs are trimmed in an open fabric mesh, the cabin construction is a feast of high- quality, leathergrain-free plastic.

The grander versions - Pulse and Passion - have two pods, like eyes on stalks, sprouting from the top of the facia; they contain the clock and the rev-counter. They also have a glass roof and, crucially, an overboost function for the tiny three-cylinder, rear-mounted engine's turbocharger. This puffs the power up from the cheapest "Pure" Smart's 45bhp to a heady 55bhp. One tuning company offers an 84bhp conversion, but that's strictly for the brave. There's a big boot space behind the seats, and an airy ambience altogether surprising in a car just 2.5 metres long. To put that into context, a Mini occupies 3.05m. Parking isn't a problem, then.

But is it safe? Will it fall over? This is a Mercedes in all but name, so you'd expect it to be thoroughly engineered. But the Mercedes' A-class, which looks almost normal next to the Smart, had a few moments of imbalance in its early life, and mud sticks. Rest assured, the Smart protects you in a crash rather better than the tiny snub nose might suggest. The outer skin panels are self-coloured plastic, but the main structure (silver in the Passion, black in the others) is steel. And two airbags, anti-lock brakes and an electronic stability control are standard. That's a lot of technology for a tiny car.

And if your Smart no longer seems so smart to you, those body panels can be changed for a set of a different colour in just an hour. Another hour will have the cabin colours changed from all-blue to blue and orange, or vice-versa. With unintended irony, the parts come in boxes labelled in English: "Smart genuine parts", or "Smart genuine accessories".

More technology: a six-speed, clutchless, sequential gearchange, called Soft-tip. We move off, this Passion's engine humming passionately, and as long as I keep the revs revving and the boost flowing the Smart gets along far faster than other drivers expect. The "city-coupe" copes fine on the open road, neither as noisy as a Mini, especially when cruising in the long-legged sixth gear, nor as bumpy. There's an automatic mode for the transmission, too, but it is a bit slow-witted.

So, what happens when we encounter a corner? Fat rear wheels and skinny front ones are designed to keep the Smart pointing front-first, and so they do. The front tyres squeal before the Smart starts to feel precarious, and it's surprisingly stable for something so short. With practice, you can scuttle through bends in fine style.

As an idea, it explodes with originality. As a car, it works properly. As an ownership proposition... Well, how much of an early adopter are you?

Planet Moto is in Bordon, Hampshire, tel: 07000 246810

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: MCC Smart

Prices: from pounds 6,799 (Pure) to pounds 9,295 (Passion)

Engine: 599cc, three cylinders, turbocharger, 55bhp at 5,250rpm

Transmission: six-speed semi-automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Performance: Top speed of 84mph (which is electronically limited), 0- 60mph in 16.5 seconds, 54-59mpg

Rivals

Daihatsu Move: pounds 7,295. Two more seats, same number of cylinders, similar non-conformist stance, but too, well, square.

Fiat Seicento Citymatic: pounds 7,120. Italy's contribution to the range of tarmac brainboxes has clutchless transmission (but with a conventional lever) but, although on the small side, is a lot longer than the Smart.

Mini: pounds 9,325. The original masterpiece of space efficiency, but it has long outgrown its minimalist roots. Voted Car of the Century, but about to be replaced for the next one.

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