At the Birmingham motor show of 1999, not quite 15 years ago, I made one of the daftest car purchases in a lifetime of fairly flakey transactions.
I bought a grey-imported Smart Fortwo directly off the importer’s none-to-impressive stand, paying all the money to have a car that at the time was considered a rarity.
I was so beguiled by the its petite shape and technical wonders (which of us had owned an 2.5 metres long, 599cc turbocharged three-cylinder car before?) that I didn’t care that it didn’t steer or ride very well.
I didn’t even mind that the major plastic panels were lipstick pink, though within a few days I did change those to black, because at the time it was easy.
The car stayed with us at our semi-rural home for three years and was quickly improved in both handing and ride by a fat set of Brabus wheels.
It was also driven uncomplainingly by my missus until two things happened: she started having to ply the motorways to get to a new job (early Smarts were rubbish in crosswinds) and early one morning she came into sharp contact with the world’s largest badger, which shook her up quite a bit. We traded it for a Mercedes soon after.
All these years I’ve retained my tendency to apologise for Smarts and their drawbacks. If you tried hard, you could cope with the slow and obstructive gearchange. If you changed the wheels and tyres you could improve the turn-in to the point where it was almost as good as a so-so conventional car. You could improve the ride just by driving around the worst of the bumps.
Suddenly, I discover that my 15 years of apologies are no longer needed. I’ve driven the new five-speed manual version of the forthcoming Fortwo, and been driven for another 30 miles in a version equipped with the new double-clutch gearbox.
The car, still 2.6-metres long, can cope quite well with bumps. The electric power steering – insofar as you can assess steering while manoeuvring a little car around a carpark – is light, nicely geared and sensitive. The automatic gearbox, no longer a cheapo automated manual, surges smoothly up through the six ratios like any other self-shifting Mercedes.
Meanwhile, the extra 10cm of track and body width make the car more stable in crosswinds (“No longer an issue,” say the engineers) and there’s now ample shoulder room – to go with the headroom and legroom, which were always good.
In short, the baby Smart is heading for a whole new lease of life. Many congrats to Mercedes-Benz, who seem to have got it right, while taking an uncharacteristically long time about it.