The Smart Fortwo is a unique proposition. Its emotional appeal is unquestionable and it is one of the most novel and innovative cars available.
If you had to dream up a new name for what happens when excessive power is applied through a car’s rear wheels, your shortlist might consist of a few possibles. ‘Tyreslip’ wouldn’t be on it; that’s rubbish. ‘Negative skidding’ doesn’t do it either. What about ‘the Brabus effect’ then? Bingo.
It’s difficult even to utter the name of those infamous Benz-fettlers without your head filling with images of wheels spinning well beyond the limits of grip, and obsidian shadows erupting down derestricted autobahn faster than seems strictly possible. Now juxtapose it with the word Smart. ‘Our survey said… eee err’.
Irreconcilable concepts then? The Smart hope is apparently not. It might sound like a hard-done-to Olivia Newton John reaching for the skintight leggings in order to remedy her bookish image problem, but DaimerChrysler’s most eager-to-please brand has teamed up with the Bottrop-based tuners, in order to serve up range-topping versions of its Fortwo, Roadster and Roadster Coupé models that specialise in pace, dynamism and sporting thrills.
This is the resulting Roadster Brabus. It’s got 17in wheels, comes with leather as standard, and wears a racy outward makeover of which the aforementioned ‘Sandy’ would be proud. As the pinnacle of Smart’s sporting range, it also carries a heavy responsibility; to prove that DC’s babies have grown out of their balance problem. This Smart’s got to be more than clever – it’s got to be fast and fun into the bargain.
A new turbo, revised cooling and a new sports exhaust boost what was 80bhp to 101. Torque has leapt to 96lb ft, available between 2500 and 4500rpm, and the result is a 0-62mph sprint that drops more than a second to the right side of 10, and a maximum speed of 119mph.
And you can feel it. This Roadster is much keener revving above 3000rpm – noticeably in the higher gears. There’s less lag from the turbo, which means a smoother, more approachable power delivery. Putting your foot down in this Smart is a rewarding experience, and it brings about useful results; that’s a first.
A reinforced clutch and transmission play their part in the transformation too, and revisions to the semi-automatic paddleshift gearbox makes manually-actuated and automatic changes quicker and less abrupt. With the bit between your teeth, you can work your way up the ratios with about 30 per cent less interruption than in the standard Roadster. Downshifts are also quicker – but the biggest improvement is in the way the gearbox behaves when it’s unstressed.
Automatic mode on the standard car can be a confused muddle of badly-timed changes, wrongly-selected gears, and lengthy gaps in between. In the Brabus, it’s a different story. The software is much more adaptable, reacting to throttle input, picking shift-points with intuitive nowse, and changing ratios more smoothly.
The tendency to drop out of drive completely when you come off the throttle has also been remedied. Result: you’re much less likely to arrive at a roundabout without a dead throttle pedal, or emerge from a bend with an unpredictable shove.
The Brabus’ sports suspension is a useful step forward as well, adding much-needed compliance to the ride, and keeping better check on the Roadster’s body movements. The standard car’s Bridgestone Potenza rubber gives way to lower profile Michelin Pilot Sport tyres; they provide much better feedback through the steering wheel, and a steadier progression beyond the bounds of their own grip.
But the car’s fundamental shortcomings are still the same. Push on through a bend, and the car’s rearward weight distribution means there’s simply too little mass to keep the front wheels satisfactorily stuck. Understeer sets in, the ESP shuts off the throttle valve, opens up the clutch, and brakes the inside rear wheel to compensate.
With the electronic nanny switched off, you’re left with an oversized wheel and an over-slow rack to keep things together. Maybe it’s the low driving position, or perhaps the even more tremulous exhaust note, but given how edgy this sports car can be to drive, you wouldn’t actually want it much faster.
That apart, it’s probably the most accomplished, convincing and grown-up Roadster Smart make, if it’s restricted practicality leaves it a little shy of the booted Coupé. Leather on the seats, on the doors and on the dashboard adds a generous helping of class, as does aluminium on the gear lever and handbrake.
And the equipment tally is impressive too; the Brabus comes with heated seats, turbo boost and temperature gauges and front fog lights. To dress up a standard roadster in the same garb would set you back only £255 less – and then you’d have 20bhp less on tap. Seems like pretty good value, until you look at the final price.
If you’re a fully-paid up subscriber to Smart’s ideology, £16,695 might not sound like too much for the best looking, quickest and most capable Roadster in the family.
However, that’s enough for Honda Civic Type-R, either of Seat Leon Cupra’s or, as of September, a brand new BMW 1-series with change – and that might be enough to make you chop in your membership card.