I was barely out of my awkward teenage years when Mercedes-Benz unleashed its audacious, Pop Swatch-inspired Smart City Coupé on upwardly mobile young city types.
Having driven one back in the early noughties, I loved the original looks, valued the park-anywhere ability and giggled at the insane turning circle.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and although Pop Swatches have now been banished to the hazy memories of jaded Generation Xs, the Smart is battling not to go the same way. I’ll be living with a Fortwo for six months and am intrigued to see whether this third-generation model has tweaked its tried and tested compact car formula enough to remain a serious proposition in the fiercely competitive city car class.
I wanted a bit more oomph on tap for my occasional blasts around the M25, so I opted for the more powerful of the two engine options in the regular Fortwo: the 898cc, 89bhp turbocharged triple that also powers the Smart’s close French relative, the Renault Twingo. Rather than plumping for the five-speed manual gearbox, I’ve chosen the new six-speed dual-clutch auto to see just how much better it is than the previous generation’s clunky robotised manual. I recall that no matter how hard I tried, gearshifts were far from seamless in the old gearbox.
To keep things realistic on the price front, I’ve gone for mid-level Prime trim. On top of standard features such as air-con, cruise control, heated seats, a multifunction steering wheel and a tyre pressure monitoring system, we’ve added an £845 Premium Pack that includes heated and electrically adjustable door mirrors, rear parking sensors, a height-adjustable driver’s seat and steering wheel and a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with sat-nav, Bluetooth connectivity and MirrorLink for Android phones.
My tastes have also matured somewhat in the choice of colour scheme. Retina-abusing shades and fake graffiti-style body panels have been eschewed in favour of classier-looking Midnight Blue paint with a silver Tridion safety cell. One of my colleagues expressed disappointment at my decision not to go for the arresting orange and black colour combo also available, but with my motorcycling background, this would have been too reminiscent of KTM’s signature look.
I also think the cabin is a bright and airy place to be. The almost full-length sunroof helps to create a feeling of space, and because this Fortwo is wider than its predecessors were, this really helps when you have a broad-shouldered passenger. There are some nice design touches and nods to the original car, such as rev counter and clock pods stacked on top of the dashboard that you can move left or right to suit. The Neoprene wetsuit-feel mesh fabric covering the top of the dashboard adds some welcome texture, too.
Driving the Fortwo for the first time reminded me that a multi-storey car park can actually be fun. The one we use for work is a badly laid out, tight affair, with awkwardly placed concrete buffers at the entrance and exit of every up and down ramp, perfect for catching tyres and snicking alloy wheels. The new Fortwo has been bestowed with an even tighter turning circle than its predecessor, now a mind-boggling 6.95 metres. I was actually whooping as I lined up and catapulted the tiny Smart up and up – no need for braking, ever, as long as you keep a watch out for other cars manoeuvring into and out of parking spaces.
Talking about parking… I am going to admit something here. On the first couple of attempts at squeezing the Fortwo into the tiniest space possible, I found it more difficult than it should have been, due to the overly sensitive rear parking sensors. It’s easier if you turn them off (via a switch to the right of the steering column), but annoyingly, you have to repeat the action every day before setting off. I also woefully underestimated how much room the long doors need in order to be able to attempt anything like a dignified exit, especially when wearing a skirt. However, parking at home is much easier now. I live in a narrow street with marked-out parking bays. As long as there is a wide enough boundary to stop me from falling foul of the overzealous traffic wardens, I can park at a right angle to the kerb between two cars. In fact, I sometimes end up next to motorbikes lined up in a similar fashion, something that gives me a bit of a warm glow. Not sure the riders think the same, though. So it’s still early days, but on the parking front at least, the Smart is impressing me all over again.
Another area where city cars need to triumph is fuel economy. I’m a typical city driver, doing very short hops each day with the odd motorway journey thrown in once every couple of weeks, and I’ve been panicking slightly because I need to get a ‘proper’ fuel economy reading instead of relying on the car’s electronic readout, but the Fortwo’s 35-litre fuel tank has been draining so slowly that I haven’t been able to yet. The fuel gauge is still showing three bars’ worth of go-go juice (out of eight) after 280 miles of enthusiastic haring around the streets of leafy south-west London.
However, when I do brim the Fortwo again, I’d be surprised if I get near the official claimed average combined 68.9mpg figure. The claimed urban figure is a slightly more realistic 56.5mpg, so we’ll see.