I often wonder what the future of enthusiast motoring will look like. For years, we have associated sports cars with power, and witnessed Nürburgring lap times become the ultimate in bragging rights. You have to wonder though, how relevant are these things moving forward. Increasingly nanny state laws, a pressing need for our society to use and waste less and the possibility that maybe, just maybe, cars are becoming so refined they’re not actually that involving to drive anymore are all factors that really contribute to an argument for smaller, less powerful, more involving sports cars. And with that I’d like to introduce you to the newest, smallest member of the Thinker’s Garage fleet. Small, light, reasonably slow and a ridiculous amount of fun, it’s a smart Roadster and its more than 10 years old.
Everything silver is metal, blue is plastic.
It makes a compelling case for itself even today; its construction, a strong steel frame clothed with lightweight plastic body panels which have a degree of impact resistance, results in a total weight of around 800kg, depending on the options fitted. Light weight means less power for the same result, and the Roadster is fitted with a 698cc turbocharged three cylinder engine. Its 60kw doesn’t sound like much on paper, but it feels powerful enough, sounds good (including all sorts of whistles and chirps from the turbo), and is excellent on fuel. In the weeks since I picked mine up, I have done all sorts of driving – city commuting, a weekend away and a couple of blasts in the hills, and I have achieved 5.6 litres/100km on average (and my right foot is reasonably heavy).
Another natural benefit of the Roadster’s light weight is its handling. Its mid-engined layout and very compact dimensions make it feel nimble and very responsive on the road. Yes, there’s body roll and its natural tendency is to understeer, but at road speeds it’s a lot of fun. You’re also positioned closely to the road, which makes you feel like you’re going very fast all the time anyway. This is quite indicative of the car’s general character – it’s refreshing in a world where even a Toyota Corolla feels the need to look aggressive to have a car that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It looks like its smiling at you and its infectious. I can’t believe the attention it receives, particularly with the top down, and its nearly all positive, and often from people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in a car.
The eye catchingly tiny size and playful styling are backed up by some excellent and distinctive details. I really like the little gauges atop the dash, the metallic flake in the front and rear plastic fascias, the cloth dash tops that break up what would otherwise be a very big expanse of plastic in the cabin, the way the rear wheels have more dish to them then the fronts….
So why don’t we see more smart Roadsters around? Well, it’s not all perfect. The issue most people bring up is the gearbox. While it did certainly take some getting used to, and a proper manual would indeed be preferable, now that I’m used to it I find it second nature to drive in sequential manual mode. The automatic mode is still totally hopeless – the power band is very small and it can never seem to decide which of the 6 available gears is the best. The other issue is the roof. Roadsters are notorious for leaking – I searched for months before I found one that was sufficiently water resistant. Best case scenario you might still observe the odd dribble of water in the rain. Worst case scenario your electronics will become sodden and you will be facing some very expensive repairs. Many had these issues since new, and anyway, in contrast with the rest of the car’s simplicity, the roof seems needlessly complicated. It’s also common for some air conditioning pipes to fail, rendering the system useless, and these issues together cost parent company Mercedes-Benz a significant amount of money in warranty work.
To go from this…
…Retract the soft top…
…Unclip the roof bars…
… and put the roof bars in their holder in the front. To put the roof back on, reverse the steps.
Whether it was these issues or deeper financial problems at DaimlerChrysler that ultimately led to the smart Roadster’s demise is a matter of conjecture and the truth might never be publically known. The last of the 43,000 or so Roadsters built came off the French production line in 2006. Only 296 of them, all 60kw Roadsters (no Roadster-Coupes) were officially imported into Australia, making them very rare here indeed.
Its also very tiny. Its compact exterior dimensions and low height make it difficult for taller people to get into (although for most people it’s quite comfortable once they’ve lowered themselves in), and luggage space is minimal – a recent weekend away required some very light and creative packing and my passenger having no room for her legs. So it’s not for everyone.
Not much room here…the engine’s underneath.
It would be interesting to know how the car buying public might react if smart launched a non-leaky, modern (or full manual) gearbox equipped version of the same car tomorrow. The Roadster certainly seems right for these times, and has indeed gained a cult following amongst fuel conscious driving enthusiasts, as well as those like me who can’t afford or compromise far enough for a Lotus Elise or Caterham. So far I’ve had a heap of semi-responsible fun, learnt a lot about mid-engined handling dynamics and, above all, smiled an awful lot, and in my opinion there’s no better justification for car ownership than that.
by Andrew Marshall