Smart roadster - schizophrenic automobile on test

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September 15, 2004 In the case of the smart Roadster, the word Smart is both a brand and an adjective. The global automotive industry is a voracious user of global resources. This year it will create 60 million cars and consume around 50% of the world’s oil production, 50% of rubber production, 25% of glass production, and 15% of steel production. If everyone drove a smart car, we’d make a massive shift towards smart sustainable living. The feel-good Smart Kart is two cars in one – a ballsy sportster and a good citizen with modest consumption for everything except fun.

The Smart Roadster makes sense the more you drive it. With an engine output of 60 kW and a weight of just 790 kg, the machine has just 13.2 kilograms for each kilowatt of power, which enables it to fight way above its division in every aspect of the car’s performance.

With less weight to push around it can accelerate and decelerate very quickly. It sits on the road more like a go-kart than a roadgoing car, offering incredibly responsive steering and handling. Like all small cars, the way to make them perform is to use their superior handling to attain higher cornering speeds, and though at times skittish, the Smart Roadster really excels in the swervery. At these times, it is an out and out racer, and on a sunny day with the roof off, you’ll find yourself heading for an empty mountain road to sample the car’s remarkable ability to maintain momentum.

Senior motoring journalist Peter McKay drove one of these beasties in the Targa Tasmania and stunned the other drivers with the car’s on-road performance in comparison with the full array of exotica it was classed alongside. McKay’s high cornering speeds enabled him to humble many cars with a price tag, engine capacity and engine output an order of magnitude greater than the Roadster’s. It may only have a 700cc three cylinder motor, but it is a true sports car and Mercedes engineers have admirably achieved their goal in creating a modern interpretation of the classic roadster.

And if sporting performance is what you’re after, the Roadster can be enhanced to the hilt. In Europe, Brabus is to Smart as HSV (Holden Special Vehicles) is for Holden. Brabus makes a wicked enhanced variant of the roadster with 74kW – enough to propel it to 200 kmh. You can order most of the go-fast and look good bits from the Brabus version directly from the dealer.

That’s the male perspective. These words are being written by a female, and I put around 800 kilometres on the Smart Roadster and fell in love with the many aspects of its personality. It’s sporty and frugal and most of all, FUN!

The car is so distinctive, everyone notices. That’s the first part. The sense of fun the car exudes from every pore is the infectious bit though. Everyone wants to chat and say hello. Everyone! I had a week of being approached by dozens of people to ask about the car, from enthusiasts driving hotrods to one frail old lady who must have been Octagenarian or more – she propped on her walking stick as I parked the car in a country town. As I stepped out, she clenched her free hand, waved it in the air and grinned, “good on yer love.”

She normally took no notice of cars, but could tell that this was very different. I suspect she was pleased to see someone doing something she had always dreamed of. Going out in the Smart Roadster was like going for a walk with a cute puppy on a lead.

The frugality can be measured at the pump – an average 45mpg or 6.22 litres per hundred kilometres over a week in which the car was driven in a spirited manner, and occasionally even faster than that.

At times though, we drove the car in a highly economical manner and got better than 60mpg. Round town, the average figures don’t drop that much if you can’t help putting the boot into the high performance engine, but 45 mpg around town is highly respectable anyway. Except when driven for economy, the tiny roadster can easily best 50mpg, and when driven for extreme economy it can return better than 60mpg both upcountry and around town.

The sense of frugality is not reflected in the incredibly impressive array of technology the pocket rocket packs.

In many senses, the Roadster has captured the spirit of the Austin Healy Sprite, MG Midget and Triumph Spitfire of yesteryear. Bare bones sportscars they were –simple Spartan vehicles a magnitude smaller than the small sports cars of today such as the Mazda MX5, MG TF and Toyota MR2.

The Smart Roadster is smaller than all of them. Were you to jump into the miniscule Roadster not knowing of the technology which has been lavished on this vehicle you might feel vulnerable and small on the road. The Smart Roadster tackles this with technology and its stunning visuals.

The Smart Roadster is so distinctive from any angle that it commands the attention of those around you. It’s styling is edgy and innovative and highlights the powder-coated TRIDION safety cell. In traffic the low seat and roof height constantly remind the driver of the car’s modest proportions and you are acutely aware of the larger cars around you, but they are equally aware of the Roadster. Only 100 of these cars have sold in this country and quite clearly that still means that the vast majority of road users have not yet seen one.

The fact that the smart roadster is setting new standards here is not least due to the quality and weight of the materials used in these cars. The TRIDION safety cell with a weight of just 192 kilogrammes greatly contributes to this. The rigid cell is also the basis for the precise handling and the excellent suspension characteristics. Their sturdy architecture means that the cabriolet shaking which occurs among this species, is unknown to the smart roadster, even on extremely rough roads. And finally, crash safety also benefits greatly from the high structural stability of the passenger cell.

The use of so-called tailored blanks is a further reason for the extremely low total weight. Panels of varying thickness make it possible to have thick sheet metal in areas under strain and thinner sheet metal in areas under less strain. In addition to this high-strength and extremely high-strength steel alloy is used in areas where maximum force is applied or acts.

Finally, plastic bodypanels also form the outer skin of the smart roadster. This material, which is much lighter than steel, is used in the front and rear ends, wings and doors. The powder-coated TRIDION safety cell remains visible in the area of the door sills, B-pillars and roll-over bar as a visual representation of the two-colours and safety concept typical of the smart brand. This concept has proved to be robust in everyday use and enables easy repairs in the event of damage. The bodypanels are simple and therefore inexpensive to replace.

The base model costs AUD$37,990 plus on road, though you can option the car into the mid fifty thousands with wheels, leather seats, exhaust, body kit ad infinitum.

Luggage space is not exactly abundant in the Roadster but it’s not as bad as it seems. There are two luggage compartments – one in the front with a capacity of 59 litres and one in the rear of 86 litres, though some of this space is lost if you use a hardtop and need to stow it in the rear luggage compartment. There’s also special made-to-measure luggage available through Smart which is part of the smartware programme and makes optimal use of the space available. Smart not surprisingly reports a brisk trade in the stylish luggage, which offers the additional benefit of being able to pack in your home and know exactly how much space is available.

In summary, this car if definitely not for everyone. Anyone more than 190cm need not apply. People of ample girth are also excluded, unless you plan on gathering a crowd each time you wish to climb in. One of my brothers, who exceeded both limits simply could not get in the car. On the other hand, smaller drivers will feel like there’s a car made just for them.

It’s a dual purpose car – a sportster, and a frugal commuter – it’s most compelling aspect is the sense of fun it evokes in the driver and in those in the immediate vicinity.

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