TG Garage

Garage Review: Is the Smart forfour passion a smart idea?

I live in Cape Town, which means that if you reside in Joburg  – you don’t really understand the concept of traffic anymore.

The city of mountain and sea has massive geographic challenges to expand its road network, not to mention ancient kerbs and alleyways in the CBD, which cannot be rebuilt to facilitate greater parking density. Cape Town traffic is quickly approaching levels of chaos once only found in Cairo and many people are downsizing, seeking smaller cars to pursue gaps in traffic and parking bays in town.

You’d think that Mercedes-Benz’s city car brand would be point of mind, in this regard. The Smart forfour: seating for kids in the back, and small enough at only 3.5m bumper-to-bumper to allow you unprecedented traffic navigating agility. But there is one enormous problem with these latest-generation four-door Smarts: they are not very smart, and they aren’t very German – either.

Mercedes-Benz’s Smart range has always been a global underachiever for the brand and especially so in South Africa. And the forfour doesn’t change any of that, because the one I drove was powered by an asthmatic 1-litre naturally-aspirated triple, which is only good for 52kW. Add to this the issue of only having five-gears, which shift with the notchy stubbornness so characteristic of many smaller engined cars. Consequently, there is no joy crawling in traffic between first-and-second gear in a manual gearbox forfour.

Despite its drivetrain qualms, the overall design is striking and the interior packaging clever. And yes: it is quite small, for the volume of available interior space – so parking is effortless. But this is a car of hugely wasted potential, for Smart.

Built on Renault’s Twingo platform, the Smart forfour is rear-wheel drive, which is amazing for something of its size in the hatchback segment. Imagine the lane-changing nimbleness of its quick-steering and rear-wheel drive agility, if only there was turbocharged power to drive it along?

Time and again, you spot a gap in one of the lanes flanking your own on the N1, and by the time you have double-declutched and geared down, the 1-litre’s 91Nm still haven’t managed to surge you ahead. If considering a Smart, you simply must have the turbocharged one in South Africa. At 66kW and 135Nm, it’s 27% more powerful than the un-boosted forfour and that will make all the difference hunting for gaps in traffic – or just generally staying up to speed in the far righthand lane during a commute.

It’s quizzical that they even bother marketing the naturally-aspirated version here, which will suffer even worse performance discrepancies at Joburg altitudes than it does in Cape Town.

Such a shame, because the forfour does look delightfully different to most other superminis and with its rear-wheel drive configuration, offers a slightly sharper drive. I just kept wishing it had more power on call through the right pedal to exploit that rear differential potential. Lance Branquinho

Specification

  • R201 149
  • 999cc, 3cyl petrol, RWD, 52kW, 91Nm
  • 4.2l/00km, 93g/km CO2
  • 0-100kph in 15.9secs, 151kph
  • 975kg
  • Tester’s notes: BMW isn’t the only company that makes a rear-wheel drive hatchback.
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