BY ANDY ENRIGHT
It came as a shock to many to find a smart that was not only affordable but also a resolutely practical proposition. Until the launch of the forfour, smart had been a rather boutique brand, offering desirable and stylish but rather expensive little cars. The forfour was the company's first toe in mainstream waters and proved instantly popular. Many customers, bored with the likes of the Vauxhall Corsa, the Ford Fiesta or the Peugeot 206, instead went for something with a little more personality and plumped for a forfour instead. Used examples are now emerging and clever buyers can snap up the odd bargain.
Models Covered: (five-door supermini 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 1.5T petrol, 1.5 turbodiesel 68, 95bhp [purestyle, coolstyle, passion, BRABUS])
It's odd how a product borne from financial expediency can prove so warmly received. While other examples - say Porsche with the Cayenne - get accused of prostituting brand values in the chase for greenbacks, smart's dabble with the mass market, the forfour, has been an instant hit. What's more, it appears to have had no negative effects whatsoever on the company's brand equity. As a brand, smart have sailed through stormy waters and a financial restructuring statement issued in 2004 saw the company cancel plans for a four-wheel drive model and also axe the pricy roadster and roadster-coupe models. Instead an increased focus is being placed on the cash cows, the dinky fortwo and the forfour we look at here. The reason why MCC needed the Forfour so badly is revealed in their profit and loss accounts. The existing models weren't selling anything like enough and with the sunk costs that had been ploughed into the Smartville plant, it was soon apparent that whichever way you juggled the numbers, the company needed a volume-selling car in order to remain a viable concern. MCC's owners, DaimlerChrysler, were running out of patience and cast about for a partner who could make this happen at minimal cost and came up with Mitsubishi. Sharing 60 per cent of its structure with the Japanese company's Colt supermini, the forfour is cost effective and appealing. Initial production issues were soon ironed out and the forfour range, launched in September 2004, was initially available with 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5-litre petrol engines. Two versions of the 1.5-litre dCi diesel engine were subsequently launched, powered by 68 and 95bhp versions of this fuel efficient unit. A turbocharged BRABUS version of the 1.5-litre emerged as the forfour range topper in May 2005 and coolstyle and purestyle value models appeared in July of that year. The last forfour models were sold by the middle of 2007 as struggling Smart reverted to what it did best with a one citycar line-up.
What You Get
Despite its genetic similarity to the Mitsubishi Colt, the forfour nevertheless looks like a smart. The foursquare stance, the bulging wheelarches, beady front lamps and neatly stacked tail light clusters are all familiar design cues but closer inspection reveals a far more conventional car than the smarts we're used to. Much of the personality that makes up a smart car as we know it has been in effect grafted onto the far more prosaic Colt. Put the two side by side and you'd spot the same basic proportions but otherwise MCC have done well with the styling. The exposed frame is painted silver and there are the usual plastic exterior panels. The interior features four seats and plenty of headroom with a sliding rear bench fitted as standard so that you can choose between optimising passenger legroom or luggage space. The bench slides up to 150mm fore and aft and tilts backwards, folds in half or tumbles out of the way. smart even offer what they dub a 'lounge concept', an option where the front seats fold and allow you to stretch out in the back. A three person bench is also offered but by far the best setup is as a four seater with adequate shoulder space. The dashboard isn't what you'd expect, offering a far more conventional basic layout with a centre console, but MCC have livened it up with some jolly colours and auxiliary instrument binnacles so that existing smart owners will find it acceptable. Six airbags, anti lock brakes and electronic stability control are offered and MCC designed the car confident of a strong four-star Euro-NCAP crash test showing. Look closely and you'll find that what looks like a typical smart TRIDION safety cell is in fact a series of conventional painted panels with plastic cladding fleshing out the look. The panel fit on early models wasn't that great (particularly around the doors) but smart say this has since been tightened up. There will be those who see the plastic cladding as a superficial styling extravagance. Others will feel that this car represents a great balance between funky urban style and all-round practicality. We're in the latter camp, preferring this car over its Mitsubishi cousin any day of the week.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
No significant faults have yet been reported. Check the service record is fully stamped up to date and ensure that the car hasn't suffered too badly front parking bumps and scrapes. The BRABUS model has a real appetite for front tyres and you should check the tread depth before buying. Satellite navigation was an £895 optional extra and is worth looking for (but negotiate hard on price). Avoid higher mileage 1.1-litre cars that may have been thrashed as company hacks.
(approx based on 2004 forfour 1.5) Consumables are reasonably priced for the forfour and you should be able to get cheap mechanical parts from Mitsubishi dealers so it pays to shop around. A fuel filter works out at around £8 and an oil filter about £11. Original equipment spark plugs are £6 each. A favoured conversion amongst forfour owners is to upgrade the rather weedy horn to something with a little more oomph and this costs around £60 for parts. If you're looking to upgrade the stereo, a DIN sized fascia plate for the forfour will be around £14.
On the Road
The smart and the Colt share a Japanese-manufactured 74bhp three-cylinder 1.1-litre engine, a four-cylinder 95bhp 1.3-litre unit and a 107bhp 1.5-litre powerplant. Completing the line up is a German built 1.5-litre dci turbodiesel in two states of tune - 68 or 95bhp (the first diesel engine we'd seen in any smart). Budget-orientated smart customers get a 64bhp entry-level engine for entry-level purestyle and coolstyle models. The mainstream range starts with the 75bhp passion model with a 1.3-litre version. At the top of the range sits the 177bhp BRABUS model. As far as the mainstream variants are concerned, the 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5-litre petrol engines are both well worth having and both feel pretty brisk although the 1.5-litre unit sounds a whole lot sweeter when extended over a long motorway journey. The 1.1-litre car's manic warble is fun in small doses. Buyers will be glad to hear that a standard five-speed manual transmission features instead of smart's unloved sequential gearbox, although a six-speed semi automatic was offered as an option. The five-speed manual unit comes from Mitsubishi and the six-speed semi automatic is a smart affair. It's a good deal more advanced than smart semi automatics of old, reducing that lurch and nod effect when it swaps cogs. The reason for this is that the software has been thoroughly improved and twin cones are used within the gearbox to prime the next ratio for a quick selection. As well as being smart's biggest and most practical car, the forfour is also their most enjoyable to drive. True, the steering still has that rather strange reluctance to self centre when accelerating out of a bend, but there's not that heart-in-mouth feeling of understeer the tiny fortwo coupes suffer from and overall levels of grip are very good. Sports suspension is offered as an option and although it doesn't do ride quality too many favours, the ten per cent stiffer springs, 15mm lower ride height and big alloy wheels give a reassuringly planted feel on the road that's been singularly missing from previous smart offerings. Yes, it even feels vaguely sporty. All round vision is somewhat impaired by massively chunky windscreen pillars and you'll still feel perched rather high in the driver's seat. The brakes are effective although the pedal action is surprisingly sharp.
The vast amount of customisation options means that it could well be tough to find a forfour in the exact trim/engine/colour combination you had in mind. If you're prepared to be a little more flexible, there's a lot going for a used forfour. Our pick would be an early 1.5-litre petrol or either of the diesels.