Not so Smart

I had the occasion in Italy to drive a Smart roadster coupe for a day. I was excited for the opportunity: As a former owner of a Nissan Sentra SE-R, I appreciate good small cars, and I have admired Smarts from afar for years. The thought of renting one (at less than two-thirds the cost of a, well, normal-size car) appealed to me, and after a little cajoling, my wife agreed, and off we went.

Smart is an impressive company in its conception—luxury automaker Mercedes creates a right-sized car for moped-friendly European cities—and its general appeal. Smarts are cute. They fit anywhere (a Fortwo can be parked head-in alongside parallel-parked cars). And, one would hope, the German engineering brought by DaimlerChrysler would make for a sturdy automobile.

Except the car is—how to put this?—a piece of junk.

As a basic disclaimer, let me state again that we rented the roadster, which is Smart’s version of a Testarossa: “a light, puristic car which makes every moment behind the wheel an experience in itself,” according to the Smart website. It had manual steering, a clutchless manumatic, a quick-firing engine and surprisingly fat rear tires.

But that selling statement was all too accurate. The six-speed manual, while fun on the Autostrade, was otherwise difficult to manage. Every gear shift, whether manual or automatic, was accompanied by an odd fluttering noise from either the rear tires or the gears themselves (we never pinpointed the sound). The brake pedal was surprisingly soft, a marked contrast to the peppy gas pedal and rear-mounted engine. The car had a hard time adjusting to Italy’s winding country roads; in automatic mode, the engine often revved to unreasonable levels when encountering small hills. Coupled with the soft brakes, a few hours on the back roads left me with a very sore knee.

This might be acceptable if the car were well made, but it’s not. Our 1000-kilometer-old roadster had wind noise and rattles from all directions. Doors and trunk slammed shut with the clang of metal against metal, not the comfortable thunk found in most new cars. Climbing into and out of the car was just that: climbing. At least the ergonomics in the cabin were good; controls were easy to reach, the seats were comfortable, and open windows provided great air without buffeting, although the low, curving roof limited visibility.

I had fun driving the Smart roadster coupe toward the end of the day, when we hit straight, open lanes and the car could act like itself. The engine was fun to push on gently curving one-lane roads, and on the highway, hitting 130 kph (80 mph) was a breeze—a breeze we heard, thanks to the poor wind deadening noted above. But the rest of the day was tough to handle (pun intended), and at one point the engine’s poor shifting made Amy nauseous.

I came away from the Smart generally disappointed. Its size and nimbleness are fun and particularly useful in Europe; I squeezed into one or two very small parking spaces. We probably would have been more satisfied with the Fortwo, which is a more civilized car that would have been easier to maneuver. But the build quality and poor engine responsiveness turned me off, and I no longer await the Smart’s uncertain entry to the U.S. market.

Mini, I’m all yours. Let’s go for a spin.