Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe
Back To The Future?
For sports car enthusiasts, things just ain’t what they used to be, what with ever more strictly policed speed limits, tighter controls on emissions, high fuel prices and, er, imaginative rates of Vehicle Excise Duty to contend with.
Although rumours of the sports car’s demise are somewhat premature, the days of the big-engined, gas guzzler are very much numbered – the sports car of the future is likely to be smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient and cleaner.
It’ll have to look good, of course, be equipped with all the electronic conveniences that marketers, if not drivers, place such emphasis on and have a full suite of active and passive safety features. Naturally, it’ll be fun to drive, but the chances are that it will, of legislatively-imposed necessity, be more about the sensation of speed than speed itself.
In short, it might be something like the Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe, two cars that were in many respects a little ahead of the curve.
Launched at the Paris Motor Show in 2002, deliveries of the notchback Roadster and glassback Roadster Coupe (we’ll call it the Coupe for short) commenced the following year.
Their specification was (and is) interesting: a mid-mounted, turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine driving the rear wheels via a 6-speed sequential gearbox, electronic stability suite, electrically powered soft top or two-piece Targa top, ABS and a steel monocoque (the Tridion safety cell in Smart parlance) attached to removable plastic body panels.
LHD models were first to hit the market, with their RHD counterparts following a few months later. This resulted in Smart offering LHD Roadsters (in 60 and 80 bhp guises) and Coupes (80bhp only) to UK customers pending the availability of RHD models.
The somewhat asthmatic 60bhp Roadster (with a 0-60mph time only marginally faster than Brexit) came with a cost-cutting specification – including 15-inch steel wheels and a two-piece hard top – that kept the on-road-price down to a fiver under £10,000.00
The 80bhp versions, with a higher specification but lacking both PAS and a radio, were appreciably more expensive: the Roadster carried a price tag of £12,495.00 and the Coupe came in at £13,495.00. There was an extensive, but expensive, options list, and buyers who treated themselves to such luxuries as a radio/CD unit, air conditioning, trip computer and electric door mirrors could easily find their bank balances depleted by £15,000.00 or more.
The RHD cars, which reached the UK market in September 2003 and came with the 80bhp unit as standard, were even pricier, with both the Roadster and Coupe costing around £1000 more than their LHD equivalents, albeit they were fitted with PAS and a radio/CD as standard.
Higher performance Brabus versions followed in 2004. With 101bhp, these were the highest-performance models offered by Smart. They were also a notch or two above the standard 80bhp models in terms of specification, with sports suspension, attractive (but fragile) 17-inch alloy wheels, special body styling, heated leather seats and a paddle-operated gearshift all being amongst the goodies offered as standard. Only two colours were available: Jack Black and Speed Silver.
The Roadster and Coupe’s production life was, however, a short one, with production ceasing in November 2005 – due, some say, to the inordinately high cost of repairs carried out under warranty.
As sales of existing stock continued into 2007, it seemed that the Roadster and Coupe might be revived under a new owner. Project Kimber, a UK-based consortium, planned to move the production tooling from France to the UK and offer restyled and re-engineered versions under the AC banner. But although the consortium got as far as entering into a Minute of Understanding with Smart, the project stalled and ultimately came to nought.
Over the years various other reports emerged of plans, whether real or imagined, to return the sporty little Smarts to production. But with these also having failed to come to fruition, it’s clear that the future of the Roadster and Coupe lies as modern classics: fun cars for high days and holidays.
So with that in mind, let’s look at how they stack up in 2019.
The first thing to note is that they’re still in reasonable supply. Smart’s parent company, Mercedes-Benz, does not disclose production and sales figures, but it’s understood that over 6,000 Roadsters and Coupes came to the UK out of a total production run of circa 43,000. According to the DVLA, around 3,700 Roadsters and Coupes are currently licensed in the UK and there are another 1,300 or so on SORN. Finding one shouldn’t, therefore, be a problem.
Indeed, your main problem might lie in deciding which one to go for, Smart having produced several versions of both the Roadster and Coupe. In addition to the original LHD imports and the standard and Brabus variants, a lower specification (and therefore cheaper) Light model joined the range in 2004 and a top-of-the-range Brabus Xclusive model did likewise in 2005. There were also a number of special editions, such as the Bluewave, Speedsilver, Roadster Coupe Racing (of which only 50 individually numbered UK models were built) and the end-of-line Finale models. The specifications of these special editions vary considerably, with some examples packing a 90bhp version of the 698cc engine.
There is, however, one version that was never placed on general sale: the Brabus V6 Coupe. Featuring two 698cc engines joined together in a V6 configuration, ten Brabus V6 models were built at great expense and used for promotional purposes, although it’s reputed that you could buy one back in the day if you were willing to shell out £330,000 for the privilege!
Eschewing the impossible and returning to the land of possibilities, the first choice you’re going to have to make is whether to go for the Roadster or the Coupe. The price differential that existed when they were new no longer applies, so it really comes to down to personal preference and whether you prefer the slightly lighter Roadster or the more aerodynamic Coupe with its better (but still limited) luggage space.
No matter which model you choose, you’ll have to be a yoga master if you’re tall and wish to make a graceful entry to the cabin. But once inside, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the amount of space on offer. If the model you’ve chosen is fitted with the electrically operated roof, you’ll be happy to discover that you can open or close it at any speed. And should you want to maximise the al fresco experience, you’ll be even happier to find that the roof bars can be quickly and easily detached and stowed in the front compartment. The two-piece hard top fitted to some models is also easy to remove and refit. It too stows away neatly in the front compartment, albeit at the expense of luggage space.
Equipment levels vary from model to model but all versions have electric windows, a sequential gearbox (about which more later) and central locking. But such things are very much secondary to the main appeal of these cars: driver enjoyment. So let’s fire one up and take it for a spin, shall we?
First impressions are mostly good. The engine growls like a mini-911, the handling feels lithe and sharp, the brakes do a fine job of arresting progress (albeit the pedal is rather lacking in feel) and the low-slung seating position gives a great impression of speed.
So far, so very good, then. And there’s more good news: fuel economy is excellent. So much so that you’ll have to drive as if your underpants are on fire if you’re to see a return of less than 45 mpg.
It’s not all sunshine and smiles, though; there are a few negative points to consider.
Drive a Roadster or Coupe for the first time and the reason for the cabin’s spaciousness will soon become clear: it has to accommodate the proverbial elephant in the room. And this particular Proboscidean comes in the guise of the gearbox. In theory, it’s great. In practice, not so much… In manual mode (some versions have a switchable – and best avoided – fully automatic mode), the changes can feel so slow that it can seem like the cogs have been immersed in treacle. It’s a bit quicker on Brabus versions but still on the slothful side of tardy. That said, it’s not a deal breaker. Indeed, many seasoned Smart owners swear that it’s a lot better than commonly perceived once you become familiar with it.
And that’s not all. Those in search of a genuinely rapid sports car will need to look elsewhere, for even the Brabus versions are a lot slower than they feel, taking almost 10 seconds to reach 60 mph from rest. And then there’s the steering. In short, it’s too low geared for a sports car, though fitting the (expensive) Raid Daytona steering wheel used on the Brabus V6 version is said to improve matters greatly.
The ride on the Brabus models is perhaps a little too firm for our pothole-infested roads and the relative lack of front end weight translates to understeer when really pushing on. Oversteer can also make an appearance when provoked, particularly on the Brabus models and those that have had their power augmented by aftermarket chips.
On the whole, though, the Roadster and Coupe are great fun to drive and the electronics do a fine job of helping to ensure that the only damage done when a driver runs out of talent is to his or her ego.
Even allowing for the quirky gearbox and lack of outright pace, there’s nothing about the way that the Roadster and Coupe drive that would put a dampener on ownership. Their tendency to admit water is, however, apt to do just that.
Leaks can – and do – occur in a multitude of places, the most serious of which is at the bulkhead between the cabin and front compartment. A leak here is likely to result in damage to the vital Signal Acquisition and Actuation Module, better known as ‘the SAM’. Cue a repair bill of several hundred pounds and one which will recur unless the source of the leak is properly addressed.
Leaks can also occur at the door seals, wing mirrors and roof – both the hard and soft tops being equally vulnerable. Although it’s possible to stop or at least significantly reduce the leaks, it’s liable to be akin to painting the Forth Road Bridge in days of yore: an ongoing process.
Aside from leaks, there are a number of other common issues to be aware of. For example, clutches can be fairly short-lived (a lifespan of only 30,000 miles isn’t unheard of), coil springs are known to snap and the type of air conditioning pipes originally fitted are prone to fractures. A redesigned, flexible, pipe was introduced after production ceased, so look out for this on models fitted with air conditioning.
So what does that leave to discuss? Oh yes, running costs. I’ve already covered fuel economy, but what about Vehicle Excise Duty? Well, if you plump for one of the rare 61 bhp models you’ll be glad to find out that VED comes in at a mere £30 per annum. The other models are a mite more expensive to tax but none results in the Treasury hoovering up more than £125 of your hard-earned cash each year.
Servicing costs are also fairly reasonable. As the engine is chain-driven, there’s no cambelt service to strike fear into the heart of your wallet. On the negative side, the recommended service interval is the lesser of every 12 months or 7000 miles, the correct grade of fully synthetic oil must be used and there are 6 spark plugs to change, access to three of which is a pain in the nether regions.
Buying one shouldn’t cause your wallet – or bank manager – too much discomfort, though. Prices start at around £2000, though £3000 is a more realistic figure if you’re looking for a decent example that should need little or no immediate attention. Brabus models carry a price premium, with lower mileage examples often carrying price tags of £6000 or more. And if you can find a Roadster Coupe Racing then you could be looking at having pay up to £10,000 for a pristine example.
The Roadster and Coupe may or may not offer a pointer as to the direction that sports car design will take, but like the Austin Healey Sprites and MG Midgets of yesteryear, there’s no question that they cram a lot of fun into a small package.
And fun is what sports cars are all about – past, present and future.
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