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The second-generation Smart Brabus Fortwo is still quirky, cute and better than the first, but it remains underwhelming to drive

What is it?

City cars are all about nipping around town, but what if you desire a bit more nip from your neatly packaged, urbane urban runaround?

One for the suggestion box is this new Smart Fortwo Brabus, a car that so perfectly fits the term dinky that you could almost grab it by the roof and give it a playful zoom across the kitchen floor. Park it next to a modern Fiat 500 Arbath and suddenly Carlo’s sporty little icon seems borderline gargantuan.

So has Brabus given the Fortwo the acceleration of a 1:43-scale model powered by the arm of an overexcited five-year-old? Well, not really, but it is pokier. Upgrades include an increase in fuel rail pressure and improved engine breathing on both the inlet and exhaust sides, giving modest increases of 18bhp and 25lb ft and resulting in 0-62mph in 9.5sec. 

Still, that’s quick enough for threading along narrow city streets, and to keep it clamped to the cobbles the suspension has been given a fettling. Ride height is 10mm lower, new springs and dampers add a 20% increase in all-round stiffness and there’s a further boost at the front courtesy of a thicker anti-roll bar.

Lastly, revised electric power steering software aims to sharpen up feedback through the wheel, while more relaxed ESP settings should mean less nannying and a bit more playfulness.

What's it like?

Well, it’s as you’d expect it to be from the stats: spirited, yes, but not quick. Despite Brabus shortening the gear ratios, the revs build steadily in each gear. It will quite happily zip up to 70mph, though, and while it’s limited to 103mph, it’ll get there relatively easily if you find an open stretch of autobahn.

At idle the little turbo triple has an arrant lumpiness, especially as the air-con compressor cuts in and out, but spin it past 1000rpm and it’s quite a syrupy thing as it hums away behind you. Brabus has added a sports exhaust, too, but if you're used to its regular rambunctious creations, the Fortwo is comparatively subdued; other than a bit of boom at idle and on the overrun, it’s not had much of an effect.

Throttle response isn’t ideal. Boost comes in quite abruptly at 2000rpm, but even when you step back on the accelerator at twice this crank speed you wait, then bam, a second later it surges off. This does make smooth driving a learnt art, rather than the intuitive ABC process that better linearity brings.

The dual-clutch automatic gearbox doesn't help matters. It’s smooth enough between the gears – although not amazingly quick by modern standards – but feels clunky when you’re immersed in the snarl of stop-start city traffic. But escape the confines of the urban sprawl and find freedom in fast, flowing country roads and the manual paddle shifts become impressively obedient to each finger twitch.

Open roads show up another limitation, though: poor body control. Brabus may have made tweaks to produce more incisiveness through the twisties than the standard car, but it’s no miniature hot hatch. Turn in to a fast bend and the body seems a step behind, taking a moment or two to settle before ending up at a mildly jaunty angle. Any mid-corner disturbances along the route don’t help, creating little shimmies and wobbles that, if you are on it, induce various clenching actions throughout your body.

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With such a short wheelbase it feels super-quick at the helm, too, even though the 3.5 turns between locks would suggest otherwise. With more feedback through the wheel you might learn to enjoy this, but despite the ESP's software changes the wheel isn’t particularly communicative. By the time the front tyres lose grip – of which they can muster a fair amount - it’s only the screech of rubber and the nose scrubbing out wide that tells you what’s happening.

All of which is a shame, because the more liberal ESP settings do provide more movement at the limit. If the Smart just felt more go-kart-like in its responses, this would be something to get excited about. As it is, there’s little to encourage you chase its limits.

The ride hasn’t suffered terribly as a result of the stiffer suspension. However, it wasn't that great on the standard Fortwo, so it still bobs about like a cork on wavy surfaces and thuds over broken ones. The panoramic roof on our car created quite a bit of wind noise at cruising speeds, too.

Should I buy one?

We desperately want to like the Smart Brabus Fortwo, if only because the idea of a great tuning house playing about with a small, light city car remains a recipe you will to work. It’s a better car than the last one was, but it’s still no driver’s car.

That’s fine, you might think, because this is a city car after all. Which is true, but it doesn’t ride well around lumpy city streets and it’s probably not going to be cheap – our sources suggest a starting price of about £16,000, although it's yet to be confirmed. 

If you think about what that will buy – anything from a Fiat 500 Abarth to a Mini Cooper – you’ve really got to have a passion for dinky to choose the Smart.

Smart Brabus Fortwo

Location Germany; On sale October; Price £16,000 (est); Engine 3 cyls, 898cc, turbo, petrol; Power 107bhp at 5750rpm; Torque 125lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight na; 0-62mph 9.5secs; Top speed 103mph (limited); Economy 62.8mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 102g/km, 17%

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John Howell

John Howell
Title: Senior reviewer

John is a freelance automotive journalist with more than a decade of experience in the game. He’s written for most of the big car mags, not least as a road tester for Autocar and as deputy reviews editor for our sister brand, What Car?. He was also the features editor at PistonHeads and headed its YouTube channel.

Cars, driving and machines are in his blood. When he was barely a teenager he was creating race-bale racetracks on his family’s farm – to thrash an old Humber Sceptre around. It broke regularly, of course, which meant he got a taste (and love) for repairing cars. That’s why he eschewed university, choosing instead to do an apprenticeship with a Jaguar dealer. That’s where he built up his technical understanding.  

After that he moved into high-end car sales, selling Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Ferraris and Maseratis through the franchised network. But it was a love of writing and appraising cars that, eventually, led him to use his industry experience to prise open the door of motoring journalism. He loves cars that exceed their brief in some way. So he finds as much pleasure in testing a great, but humble, hatchback as he does sampling the latest Ferrari on track. Honest.

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stumpys182 20 December 2016

My wife has a 2010 Brabus

My wife has a 2010 Brabus Xclusive Cabrio, with 101hp and I have to say, if you can accept the appalling ride over anything other than glass-smooth asphalt, its an absolute riot to drive!
It pops and farts on the overrun, whooshes from the dump valve and generally makes me giggle! Yes, the gearchange is painfully slow compared to most newer DSG-style boxes, but you learn to adjust to suit it. Pound for pound, great value for money, if not to be taken too seriously!
Thumper 20 July 2016

Buy an Abarth and save a grand!

Who would even consider this car when a base Abarth is £15k (£1k less than the Smart)?? 107bhp is laughable as a 'sports' model - even the base Abarth has 145, and has a similar level of equipment (or better) to the Smart. Oh and 4 seats and a usable boot!

Also with the Smart's longer length, it can no longer fit sideways into parking spaces (try it and see how quickly you get a parking ticket!) so completely removes its USP.

bowsersheepdog 17 July 2016

A small omission

Nobody seems to make a hottish version of a cheap city car anymore, like the Daihatsu Charade GTti.