BY ANDY ENRIGHT
How much do you need to pay to land a car that feels a little exotic? £15,000? £20,000? Actually a good deal less. The decidedly unconventional Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe offer a hefty dose of fun and a real sense of occasion at affordable prices. Cars like the Mazda MX-5 and the MG TF have enjoyed a long spell as kings of the affordable cabrio market but these little Smarts are well worth a look second time round.
Models Covered: (698 cc petrol [roadster light, roadster, roadster Brabus, roadster coupe, roadster coupe Brabus])
By the autumn of 2003, we'd already become accustomed to the sight of Smart City Coupe and Cabrio models on our roads. We'd even been treated to the bizarre Crossblade limited edition version, so the idea of a sportier Smart was already well founded when the Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe models were launched in September of that year. Both models were powered by the same 698cc 80bhp turbocharged three-cylinder engine, the key difference being the Roadster Coupe's glazed-in rear section. Both were capable of exposing their passengers to the sun's rays but neither were notably cheap. With Roadster-Coupe prices starting at £13,495, this was the sort of money most customers were used to paying for something a good deal more, well, substantial but cannily less than the big sellers like the MX-5, the MG TF and the Peugeot 206 CC. Upspec Brabus models with engines boosted to 101bhp were launched in Spring 2004. Aware that models across the range were perceived as being a little expensive, Smart launched the Roadster Light in summer 2004, a stripped out version of the Roadster with steel wheels, no stereo or air conditioning and a generally lighter equipment list. Retailing at £11,995, this changed many opinions about the Smart's value proposition. The last Roadster models were sold by the middle of 2007 as struggling Smart reverted to what it did best with a one citycar model range.
What You Get
The Roadster and Roadster-Coupe models differ largely in the way they lose their heads. The roadster features an electrically powered soft top along the lines of the Smart Fortwo Cabrio, although a matt hardtop can also be specified. This model has a notchback boot, in contrast to the roadster-coupe that boasts a high-gloss hardtop with a soft top as an option. It's up to you to decide which you prefer the looks of. In spite of their size, the Roadster Coupes are pretty versatile although luggage room isn't so generous in the Roadster. The passenger seat folds flat and incorporates a cup holder on the back. Passenger or Pepsi? The choice may come down to that. The engineers claim that cabin room for front seat occupants is better than a VW Polo. From new, the TRIDION safety cell could be specified in either black or silver and the paintwork could be specified in either jack black, shine yellow or spice red. Optional colours included champagne remix, star blue or glance grey. The interior trim was offered in scribble black or scribble red and black leather was available if buyers had the funds. The Smart's three-spoke wheels hint that the mid nineties never really went away, but manage to look good at the same time. They also look very large, despite being a 'mere' 16-inches. Put that down to the height of the car - less than 48 inches. Add a set of tyres and the wheel and tyre combination approach half the height of the car - something of a sports car designer's Holy Grail. In standard form, this car can turn out to be a little pricey - which is why the Roadster-Light entry-level car makes such a lot of sense. After all, specify the electric roof version with the paddle shift gearchange and a couple of other options and you're looking at the same money as a Mazda MX-5 or, if you can be swayed from the open roof angle, a nicely specified Mini Cooper S. This is certainly a fun little car, but for some, the novelty may wear off rather quickly. One salvation is that there will probably be a long queue of takers if and when that happens.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The first thing to ensure is that the car is what it purports to be. Some unscrupulous owners will put alloy wheels on a Roadster Light and attempt to pass it off as a Roadster while others will opt for the Brabus monoblock alloy wheels on their Roadster Coupe, for instance, and claim it's the more expensive model. Check the V5 registration document carefully in this instance. There are quite a few Euro imports knocking about and if you see a car advertised extremely cheaply, it may well have its steering wheel on the wrong side. Ask before making a long journey to view it. Interior fit and finish isn't very good. A sharp tap to the cowl of the instrument cluster will bring it into your lap, so make sure all the parts are as well affixed as they were when they left the factory. Mechanically Smarts are surprisingly tough. Few will have covered big mileages but do check for front end tracking issues and also ensure that electronic functions such as the stability control systems are working properly. Smart Roadsters can be rather susceptible to electronics gremlins, especially in very wet weather.
A replacement air conditioning belt retails at around £8 while a drilled front brake disc will be around £90. A head gasket is £25 and a replacement water pump is £58. A front wheel bearing will be £58 and if your turbo gives up the ghost it's not the end of the world at £395 for a brand new unit.
On the Road
Motive power comes from a familiar source, namely the three-cylinder turbocharged 698cc engine found in the Smart Fortwo Coupe, although in this instance it has been boosted to produce 80bhp. This may sound small beer, but in a car that weighs just 790kg, it makes a fair fist of punting the roadster models up the Queen's highway. They'll accelerate to 60mph in 10.7 seconds and will top out at 109mph. With 101bhp the Brabus models are faster still boasting a 120bhp per tonne power to weight ratio and a 122mph top speed. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is just a Smart Fortwo Coupe with a racy body. Only 35 per cent of parts are shared between the two cars, although much of the interior will look mighty familiar to existing Smart owners. One thing that is shared is the feeling of space inside. With the three-pot engine behind the driver instead of a pair of useless vestigial seats, cabin room up front is optimised. Elbow room is the only concern with two burly blokes on board, but otherwise the little Smart feel surprisingly, well, big. There's more than a hint of old Porsche 911 from the view ahead, the twin humps of the headlamps allowing you to position the car very accurately. With ESP stability control to save you from the potential embarrassment of planting a 700cc car into the scenery, you soon build confidence in this tiny roadster. The engine whooshes, wheezes and pops behind your left ear and you'll need to work the gear lever (or, if you specify them, shift paddles) in order to keep it in that fun zone between 3,000 and 6,000rpm. Smart have managed to engineer out much of the ponderous understeer that affects the city coupe quite so drastically, instead concentrating on a more enthusiast-focused set up. There seems to be hardly any body roll mid-corner and the light weight means that the suspension engineers have been able to reduce the amount of dive and squat when braking and accelerating to create a very fun, stable platform. Perhaps the only fault is that it's too good. So intuitive does it feel and so confidence inspiring is the chassis set up that you soon begin to yearn for more power. The Audi that you left for dust in the last series of bends is soon filling your rear view mirror as the bends turn to straights. Still, as Smart reckon, this is a car where the focus is not purely on reaching the destination but also on the journey there. Yes, a Citroen C2 GT will get from A to B quicker, but the Smart Roadster/Coupe, driver will enjoy the trip more. Drop the roof, savour the vaguely exotic feel of the car and you'll have a ball. What's more, it's completely unthreatening without lapsing into feyness. Treading a fine line between salon chariot and Max Power special is a tough task but the Smart manages it with some aplomb.
There's much to recommend the Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe models. If you want a car that serves up thrills without threatening your licence, both fit the bill perfectly. There aren't too many rear wheel drive sportsters this new and this cheap and a case can be made for every model in the line up. If you can't run to an Elise, here's where the Smart money goes.