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Lightly revised city-car can still charm, but without hardware upgrades now looks well off the EV pace

Not that you’d know from the look of this new Fortwo, but the scene at Smart is changing.

Daimler recently sold half the brand to Chinese giant Geely – parent company of Volvo, Lotus and, perhaps in the near future, beleaguered Aston Martin – with the intention of moving production to China for the next-generation models, which are due in 2022 and will likely include some form of B-segment crossover.

A 17.6kWh battery today classes as unusually small, and even when calculated under the NEDC regime (considered an optimistic method), the ForTwo’s range fails to make it into triple digits.

The corporate management team has also been shaken up and the brand is now an all-electric one, despite the fact zero-emission Smarts accounted only for 18,000 of 118,000 worldwide sales last year. That's bold, but it also feels like a move in the right – and possibly the only – direction. 

However, beyond the backstage bustle, from now until 2022 the ‘Smart car’ itself will exist in something of a holding pattern, with these 'new' but, in truth, largely unchanged Fortwo coupe and cabrio models offered alongside the four-door Forfour.

The three-cylinder petrol engines have gone, but aside from the LED headlights and larger grille, there’s little different about how these cars look, and all will use the same reasonably perky 80bhp electric motor and 17.6kWh battery previously fitted to all electric Smarts. Don’t expect any lifetime upgrades, either.

At least not physical ones. Acquired by Daimler in 1994 to function as something of a laboratory for future personal transport, Smart is still a forward-thinking brand, and its digital-technologies arm is more active these days than, for the time being, its efforts in either design or engineering.

The new models therefore come with a suite of app-based ‘Ready To’ services, including one that allows the owners to give access to the car to other individuals, and even charge them for use on by-the-minute basis.

Largely unchanged, but still a unique and interesting machine at a time when most cars seem to become more homogenised with every passing day. Which makes the ForTwo quite likeable from the off. 

Slide aboard and you'll find seats that are only as supportive as they need be for low-energy city driving, and that perch you usefully high for an expansive view forward (protective but fairly chunky A-pillars notwithstanding). There's also some additional storage within the cabin – a couple of new nets and trays – but the feeling of what could be described as 'avant-garde quirk' is undermined by some flimsy panels and cheap plastics at key touchpoints. The handbrake is one particularly poor example. 

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The ForTwo EQ line-up is fairly straightforward, starting with Passion (15in alloy wheels, halogen headlights, rear-parking sensors and 7in touchscreen infotainment), then moving up to Pulse Premium (16in alloys, panoramic roof and rear-view camera) before you reach Prime Exclusive, which costs some £2300 over base and adds full LED headlights, heated leather seats and ambient lighting.

There's also an 'Edition One' spec at launch, which is plastered with decals much like those seen on the Mercedes-AMG models of the same name (cute fun or an utter travesty, the choice is yours) and some red/black gloss trim to go with various Brabus-branded elements. At £23,065 even after the £3500 government grant for plug-in cars, don't expect to see many of these on the road.

And so to the big problem, which is that a 17.6kWh battery today classes as unusually small, and even when calculated under the NEDC regime (considered an optimistic method), the ForTwo’s range fails to make it into triple digits.

On account of Smart’s unambiguously city-centric proposition and the state of the competition, such limited autonomy may have once been forgivable but now looks downright feeble, not least compared to the WLTP-calculated 161 miles offered by the new electric Skoda Citigo.

The Smart remains the most nimble and compact option in this category, but then what prospective buyer isn’t going to be tempted by the still-usefully-mini Skoda’s four seats, realistic inter-city range and 40kW charging speeds (versus the Smart’s 22kW, for around 65 replenished miles of range in 40 minutes), all for only £150 more?

For urbanite devotees of the brand, the rear-motored, rear-driven ForTwo still packs character and possesses the same Eurofighter-grade turning circle. On the larger 16in wheels it rides firmly in downtown Valencia but not offensively so (and I’d wager most British city streets are kinder) and its light steering is alert and intuitive.

Our test car’s panoramic roof also made for a breezy ambience, and looking past the rather over-servoed brakes, owners will mostly be served carefree driveability. The extra cabin storage is also useful, though the car's infotainment is truly woeful and CarPlay won’t be offered until at least April. The doors of the ForTwo – and this not something that ForFour owners will have to put up with, as the B-pillar of that car cuts the front doors short – are vast petals of metal that aren't at all car-park friendly.  

Ultimately, personality and usefully small dimensions aren't enough to save the Fortwo. Smart's decision to devote its energy to medium-term strategy and the development of prescient mobility technologies (car-pooling, etc.) could well pay off, but its existing product is flirting with relic status.

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