Smart Roadster

As an heir to the Sprite tradition this roadster rarity never quite made it. Still, Sean O'Grady rates it an instant classic
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The soon-to-be defunct Smart Roadster and Roadster-Coupé are instant classics. The design may be revived in the UK under the "AC" badge, with mechanical and bodywork changes to freshen up and widen its appeal, but it is as a Smart that it will enjoy its first flush of life as a collector's item. For it does conform (mostly) to the criteria that usually apply to a true classic - rarity, looks and driving appeal.

With the demise of the Roadster and the Smart forfour hatchback, the Smart brand is back where it started - with the city car now known as the Smart fortwo, soon to be replaced by a new model. Robbie Williams, once the "face" of Smart, has put his Smart Crossblade (a special version of the city car) up for sale on eBay.

It's all down to parent DaimlerChrysler losing patience with its subsidiary's losses. In the case of the Roadster, my guess is that it was priced too high for customers to fancy it ahead of an MG TF, say, or a Mazda MX-5, both only about a thousand pounds more than the two Smarts' £13,495 starting price, and more complete cars. Yet that was probably still too low a price for it to turn a profit. Only 7,251 were sold in the UK. The future for Smart is very different from that envisaged just a couple years ago.

It's a strange feeling having been there at the birth and at the death of a car, and even stranger when its life-span has been cut cruelly short. So it is with the cute baby Smart Roadster, a sports car that never quite lived up to its promise.

I still have the press pack from the launch of the Roadster in June 2003. It reads: "The launch of the Smart Roadster and Roadster-Coupé evokes memories of the compact and purist roadsters of the 1950s and 1960s." There were optimistic claims about the car being the spiritual successor to the Austin Healey "frog eye" Sprite and, given the Smart's bug-eyed looks, you could see what they were on about.

Like the old Sprite and MG Midget, the Smart is small and cute, has a tiny (698cc) engine and is notably agile and willing thanks to an excellent power-to-weight ratio. It boasts 80bhp (double what Sprites and Midgets could muster), which is asked to push along a mere 790kg, giving a power-to-weight ratio of 101bhp/ton). Most of it is plastic, you see, except for a rigid L-shaped steel safety cell. It'll get to 60mph from rest in about 11 seconds and on to 100mph-plus. It's really about low-speed thrills.

The Smart handles very well on its fat alloy (usually) wheels, and it makes a pleasing racket, accompanied by a whistle or two from the turbo, located just behind your ears. The engineers somehow managed to get a 44/56 front-to-rear weight distribution and used a relatively sophisticated suspension to achieve that roadholding. It uses very little fuel.

But the Smart Roadster, like most classics, has some annoying habits. By far the most irritating bit of the car is the gearbox. I've heard it rumoured that the Smart city car, on which the Roadster was closely based, was given a clutchless manual or semi-automatic gear-change because if it had been left with a conventional one, enthusiastic drivers might have found it harder to control.

In any case, the gear-change is unsuited to a "sports" car, even one with such modest aspirations as the Smart. The lag between changes can be just too long, especially with the laughable optional paddle-change. I would be astonished if the AC concern don't have it as an early priority to improve this part of the car's engineering when they reintroduce it to the market.

The second irksome feature is the slight fiddliness of the roof. The car came with optional hard top or electric soft top. If you want the roof off completely, you have to roll back the electric roof and then dismantle the bars that run across the windows and store them sideways in the boot. So, unlike the Citroën C3 Pluriel (which shares the same roof design but has nowhere to store the bars, so you have to leave them at home), at least you can put the roof back together again if you're out and about and it unexpectedly rains.

It's too much palaver. I forgot that you're not supposed to take the roof bars off before the hood has folded, so leaving me in a rather exposed position. The nicely detailed cabin of the Smart doesn't look as though it would survive getting soaked. As a classic in waiting, the best bet is to buy either one of the first 2003 examples, or perhaps one of the run-out models you can find in the showrooms now - or a Brabus-tuned version, which was just a bit quicker. Personally, I'd go for the Smart Light, the economy version that had - wait for it - steel wheels. Much more practical, and much more like a frog-eye Sprite...

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