LKJ Setright: An entry-level roadster for the Smart set

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Indy Lifestyle Online

There is much to be said for being old, although the process of getting there is a deplorably tiresome means to that end.

There is much to be said for being old, although the process of getting there is a deplorably tiresome means to that end. With a head reasonably full of knowledge and experience, there is less danger of empty spaces allowing superficial views to expand into passionate enthusiasms. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the young, however full they may be of hyper-expanded hypotheses, do seem to have fun.

They play. I am told it is a means of learning how to live: few of them will allow anyone else to tell them how to do it, and if one thinks how rotten a job many of their predecessors have made of life, they may be right. Among other experiments, they play at being motorists.

It is a game that is perforce played in public, so the act of being a driver must be supported by appearances. To be seen to be a driver, one must be seen, so the car must be an open one. Keen and skilled drivers are popularly supposed to drive sports cars, so it has to be an open sports car. Real ones, good ones, cost too much for most youngsters; an affordable simulacrum will do, since it only has to serve as a stage prop.

Young heads beyond number were turned by the Smart roadster I have been driving. It looks the part: it made me remember all those tiny, precise but fragile-looking Italian super-sports cars made by the likes of Stanguellini, Nardi e Danese, Giaur and others in the 1950s. They had 750sq cm engines, were gossamer-light, and behaved as they looked - like miniature racers. Fifty years later, people are bigger and fatter, and the Smart looks appropriately fuller-fleshed, like an entry-level Lotus for the fashion-conscious.

It is, after all, only a stage prop. Much of the engineering is by Mercedes-Benz; much of the concept and styling comes from Swatch; and it is made just far enough from the German border to be deemed French. It has in the tail a three-cylinder engine of only 698sq cm, but turbocharged so that it can yield 80bhp. It has a conventional six-speed gearbox, automated so that there need be no clutch pedal. Cheap plastic panels clothe a strong and safety-conscious chassis structure, which somehow makes room for a bit of luggage in oddly shaped cavities afore and abaft.

To the credit of such a little car, it fitted me like a glove - though it seems nobody wears gloves now, even when driving; I suppose it stops them showing off their jewellery. Automotive jewellery - dials and electronic gewgaws and buttons - it has in abundance, though I am regretfully prevented from declaring it to look like a million dollars by my never having seen a million dollars.

It goes like tenpence - without much effort, without much effect. What it does not go like is a sports car. Accelerate away with the gearbox in full automatic mode and progress is interrupted by a sickening lurch into silence for a whole two seconds while the next gear is engaged. Using the manual-control mode makes the gearshifts more brisk, but demands more concentration because they need to be frequent. If you have footed the bill for the optional Sport package, which also adds fancier tyres and snazzier wheels, you will have a brace of pseudo-racer's paddle-levers, which turn with the steering wheel and seem to secure even quicker gearshifts, but the steering is absurdly low-geared and twirly, so they can easily be lost.

I was shocked by the steering behaviour of the Smart. In my first corner, a slow one, it swung like a pendulum. At higher speeds, it was like trying to steer a windscreen-wiper. The cure, as in many cars, was to inflate all the tyres to 20 per cent above the makers' recommended pressures; after that, the general demeanour was quite satisfactory. To be honest, I began to find it fun. The Smart cannot be taken seriously as a car, but as entertainment, as stage prop, or as learning aid, there is much to be said for it.

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