Sean O'Grady: Sorry to kick a car when it's down...

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What makes a Smart car? What makes a car smart? Thanks to brilliant marketing, we all know what a Smart car is: smiley face, dinky proportions, cheeky demeanour, bright, breezy and generally friendly, indoors and out. What we used to think of as "the" Smart car, the little two-door two-seater coupé, is still with us, of course, but rebadged as the Smart Fortwo. It has since been joined by the Smart Roadster and Roadster/Coupé, and the Smart Forfour.

Despite its dodgy clutchless semi-automatic gear-change, the Roadster was a lot of fun, but sadly, it seems that it never made its owner, DaimlerChrysler, enough money, and is soon going to cease production (unless it returns as a reincarnated MG...).

Plans for a Smart 4x4 mini SUV and other derivatives have been canned. With this thinning-out, the survival of the marque depends on the Fortwo's successor and the Forfour. Which brings me to the Smart Forfour Brabus (ie tuned) version that I drove recently, the most expensive in the range at £17,000, and the most ill-judged, too. Well, there's nothing like kicking a brand when it's down, is there.

But first, let me explain why you might just decide to opt for one of these rather than the default choice of a Volkswagen Golf GTI. The hottest Smart is a brilliant high-speed cruiser, and feels as well planted on motorways as cars with more venerable names on their boots. The Forfour Brabus shares with its cheaper brethren lots of thoughtful features, such as the sliding rear bench and easy-to-adjust fold-down seats. In its regard for old-fashioned virtues such as space efficiency and good handling, it reminds me, of all things, of the old Austin 1100, big brother to the Mini and designed by the great Sir Alec Issigonis.

Most Forfours also share that old classic's decent ride, but the Brabus has clearly had its suspension removed in a quest for sportiness. The designers may have gone a little too far there.

Indeed, they've gone a little too far all round. It's often a fine idea to produce a sporty model to create a "halo" effect on the rest of a model's line-up. The old Mini Cooper, the Golf GTI, and even the MG and Riley derivatives of the Austin 1100 (if anyone can still remember them) proved that. Like the oddball Brabus version of the Fortwo, in the Forfour, the Brabus tuning, aggressive styling kit and leather interior seem to fight the minimalist, non-threatening brand values that Smart has tried so hard to establish.

Not such a smart move.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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