Smart Roadster: Is it the end of the road, or just the beginning?

It was small, sexy and sporty - but now it's history. Sean O'Grady mourns the Smart Coupe
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was with great regret that I learned of the death of the Smart roadster. Death? Yes, it may seem emotive to call it thus, but the fact that DaimlerChrysler have decided to stop making it seems like a bereavement to me.

It was with great regret that I learned of the death of the Smart roadster. Death? Yes, it may seem emotive to call it thus, but the fact that DaimlerChrysler have decided to stop making it seems like a bereavement to me.

They want to restructure the brand, or something, and the Roadster is the victim. Some 13,600 were sold around the world last year. Not great business, but it must have helped the volumes at the Hambach factory in France where it, and the more familiar Smart city car, the ForTwo are made.

Well, I'm not a DaimlerChrysler executive. All I know is that I loved that little car. It was everything that so many modern cars aren't; clever, economical of materials; different for the sake of it; willfully odd; charming. I am very upset.

It seem like only yesterday that I was at the UK launch of the Smart Roadster. It was a lavish, and very tasteful affair, based at Seaham Hall on the coast of County Durham, a hotel where Edwardian baronial meets modern Japanese in a remarkably successful fusion of tastes and styles. It was an excellent choice of location, and the drives, meal and arcade and Scalextric games that were laid on for the assembled hacks were obviously the work of a huge team.

There was the DaimlerChrysler and Smart in-house press teams, intelligent, witty and helpful all of them, who looked after the cars; a PR agency that sorted out the logistics of the event, and even a couple of people from yet another agency that specialised in finding venues for corporate do's.

As you can probably tell, I had a great weekend and I even absorbed some of the propaganda that they were pumping out. The Smart Roadster, we were told by the head of Smart UK, was to offer "sub national speed limit" thrills and was the spiritual successor of great little British roadsters such as the Austin-Healey Sprite Mark I, known as the 'frogeye'. The Smart Roadster was also a bit of a frogeye and, as I soon found, turned heads wherever it went. I drove it across Northumberland and the borders up to Glasgow to attend a party, and, thus, I think that I drove the first right-hand drive Smart Roadster on to Scottish territory. It caused quite a stir in Peebles, let me tell you.

But I was also aware of the flaw in the Smart's make-up - the gearbox. You see, the Smart, like the ForTwo, has this clutchless manual box that can also be switched to an automatic setting. You need a bit of finesse, but you soon get the hang of it, and the paddle change operating from th e steering wheel is a bit of a novelty. The problem is that even if you use it properly, it still leaves a bit to be desired. When you're coming out of a bend or a roundabout and you put your foot down there's this unconscionable wait for the power to switch on. Actually it's only a little lag, about a second or so, but it feels like eternity.

If you use use the clutchless manual to switch down into the bend it's a bit better, but no way is it as good as a conventional manual box.

And that was a huge shame, because the Smart handled remarkably well. With the engine just behind you, it had near ideal weight distribution in the mid engined sports car tradition, and you got a little turbo whistle when you, or the car, changed gear.

The fat alloy wheels usually fitted to them helped too. The shallow seats were comfortable, and the cabin was a very pleasant place to be. I remember vividly the gentle red glow from the needles on the instruments, shaped like tuning forks, as I headed down the M1 back to the Midlands at midnight.

I also appreciated the ingenious way the Smart people had engineered the roof. A canvas top would slide back electrically, and you can also remove the two roof bars across the top of the door frames, storing them lengthways in special brackets in the tiny front boot. A neat solution.

The funny gearbox was one thing; the price, it would seem, quite another. A well equipped Smart Roadster would be snapping at the heels of "proper" new or lightly used roadsters such as the MG TF, the Mazda MX-5 and the under-rated (left-hand drive only) Fiat Barchetta. Although the range starts at £11,995 it tops out with the Brabus tuned Roaster-Coupe at £16,995. Serious money for three cylinders and 600cc..

Both models seemed supremely well made to me, very solid with high quality materials, but I have come across reports that are less happy about the Smart's long-term durability.

So that's my Smart obituary. Very sad. The only good news is that they are still making them until the end of the year.

Smart dealers may well be off-loading some stock for much less than the list prices. But be quick. There may be a rush for them just before production finally ends. Rare; stylish; fun. I'd buy this future classic right now. Smart thinking, that.

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