The new Smart is a safer place to be

This new development of the iconic city runabout has gained in street cred. Why else would Sean O'Grady get pulled over and frisked by Spanish drugs cops?

Price: From about £6,800 (on sale September)
Engine: 999cc petrol, three cylinders, in various states of tune
Transmission: Clutchless manual five-speed gearbox
Performance: Top speed 100mph; 0 to 62mph in 16.7 secs; about 60mpg (base model)
CO2: 112g/km (base model)

"Are you Romanian?" I'd been pulled over by what I assumed to be the Spanish drugs police. I couldn't really tell because they just waved an ID card at me from their unmarked, beaten-up Lancia and they looked more like bandits than most bandits.

I was in a new German-registered Smart ForTwo on a motorway just outside Madrid and, I'd like to think, dressed respectably. I wouldn't have thought a two-seater city runabout, even with foreign plates, would be the wheels of choice for the average East European hoodlum. A Range Rover, maybe, or a stretched Lincoln Town Car, or a BMW X5, but surely not a cutesy Smart, even in its 90 per cent-new guise.

Anyway, after the bandit/ Spanish plain-clothes officer had finished poking me around and demanding to know how much money and drugs I had on me (€25 and none, respectively), I was left to continue my exploration of the Smart's abilities. I'd heard that they'd shot up a British tourist in a hire car the week before in a case of mistaken identity. You're lucky to get this review.

Actually, I was pretty relieved that I'd been roughed up for drugs because I was expecting a speeding ticket. I apologise for my carelessness. However, it does prove that you can cruise quite serenely in a new Smart, as they've made it a more civilised, safer place to be. There's still only two chairs, but there's more crumple space (to meet safety legislation in the US) and a new interior design, more sober and less curvy than the old one but retaining those funny little pods on top of the dashboard. Those are joined by a sat-nav ready-plumbed into the Smart. Actually, the old car wasn't that bad on the open road, but this one is able to tackle inclines rather more easily.

The old engine has been ditched in favour of a 999cc three-cylinder all-aluminium one, sourced this time from Mitsubishi in Japan. Extracting as much power as possible from a high-revving unit is something they've long been practised in, and DaimlerChrysler turned to Mitsubishi when it wanted to make its baby car a tad more grown-up and muscular.

The biggest flaw in the old Smart was its gearchange. Having gone for a clutchless manual design that few drivers seemed to understand properly, Smarts gained a (deserved) reputation for being jerky. Moving up the gears, you might have to wait a couple of seconds before the electronic brain selected the next gear, in which time you'd have been thrown backwards into your seat, not by the G-forces acting on your body but by the car's hopeless dithering. It made the whole Smart experience a little tiring.

Not any more, or not so much. Drive the Smart with a degree of sensitivity (after all, it was never meant to be continually "floored") and it will change up and down with a perceptible bump rather than a jolt.

The other flaws on the old Smart are also ameliorated rather than eliminated entirely. For an urban machine, the car is very unhappy over speed bumps, though less so now, thanks to a longer wheelbase. The boot has some more space, 70 litres of it, which you can make the most of if you specify some of the clever Smart accessories such as the bootlid-mounted accessories/safety kit and the soft bag that doubles up as a detachable glovebox.

As before, there'll be the usual range of body styles (electric-roof cabrio and coupé), trim and engine options, though, sadly, the ultra-economical diesel won't be coming to Britain. That's a pity, because its CO2 emissions are a mere 90g/km, which would make it the cleanest internal combustion engine on sale here. The one thing you must do when specifying your Smart is to go for a more powerful engine, not only for the welcome extra pace but because that residual jerkiness is minimised. That means avoiding the base 45kW (61bhp) and going for the 52kW (71bhp) or the turbo-enhanced 62kW (84bhp) unit. (There'll be a sporty Brabus-tuned Smart along later). Electric power steering is an option, but you don't need it, at least not on the less powerful, thinner-wheeled ones.

The convertible is a bit of a hoot, especially now that you can raise or lower the roof at any speed. One-third of Smart buyers go for this option.

The main problem with the Smart is the concept; so clever, yet so limiting. At 19cm longer than the old one it retains that handiness for urban users but, unless you're so strapped for space that you really need to go this small, it might make sense to look at a bigger, but still dinky, rival. There's the Toyota Aygo/ Citroën C1/Peugeot 107 trio, with room for four, and the Smart-like rear-engined Mitsubishi iCar, also with four seats and on sale soon.

Yet there's something special about a Smart: a coherence in the design, integrity and a quality feel. Just ask yourself: how often do you carry more than one passenger?

The rivals

Toyota Aygo VVT-i £6,730

Going on for one metre longer than the Smart, but still tiny by most standards. Three-door, 1.0-litre petrol version may be all the car you need.

Mitsubishi iCar £8,999

Goes on sale in July, shortly before the new Smart. Similar in concept, but with four seats. Rather a hard ride, and the 660cc turbocharged engine has to work.

G-Wiz from £6,999

Recent improvements to the electric-powered 2+2 bring AC drive, a range of 40-plus miles and a top speed of 48mph. Four-month waiting list. Crude.

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