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I'm dubious about small cars. More often than not they're cheap, tacky, under-specified, and no fun to drive. A perfect example is the Ford Ka - possibly my least favourite car. Apart from a bit of art college futurist design, it is a complete abomination. I hate the looks (which is never a good start). It's also quite obvious that the main raison d'être is cost effectiveness. In my humble opinion any new car that lacks electric windows and central locking has a lot to answer for. Most cars are trying to make some sort of statement, but the Ford Ka is like a huge price tag with each component competing to have cost the least. It exudes bargain basement cheapness. It's tacky, harsh to drive, and frankly I pity anyone who's never driven anything else. Any car that still specifies a heated rear window among its features has something fundamentally wrong with it.

So, a bad start for the Smart then as I like the looks only marginally more than the Ka's. It does cost an extra £700, but I hold very little hope for it at all.

Our test car was a 'Passion'. When I checked the spec I was somewhat surprised - leather seats (only 2 of course), electric windows, remote central locking, air conditioning, ABS, active brake distribution, traction control, alloys, fly-by-wire throttle and gear change (6 speed), RDS radio, 4 airbags… the list goes on and on. Things were suddenly looking up, and by the time the car was delivered I was actually quite looking forward to seeing what it was all about. The first thing that struck me when the car suddenly entered my daily environment was just how small it really is. OK, so parking it nose-to-the-pavement isn't generally feasible, but it will fit into the tiniest space between two cars.

The door handle is a huge vertical plastic affair, which manages to get away with not feeling cheap. It is just plain and unpretentious. As soon as you climb in, you realise that this is no Ford Ka. It has the same sort of approach to funky design, but here everything exudes an air of quality. This is the sort of finish I'm used to finding in much more expensive cars, and it way exceeded my expectations.

The first taste of the barrage of technology is something completely unexpected - the starting procedure. You have to check the car is in neutral, and put your foot on the brake. Now comes the clever bit - you simply flick the key, and the engine spins over all by itself until it fires up, then immediately disengaging the starter. Admittedly this never lasts very long as it starts so quickly, but it's a nice touch normally only found on more expensive cars. Then you snick the gearstick into drive, and you're ready to go.

The default setting is manual, which means you have to flick the gearstick up or down to change gear (you get a digital readout on the dash to let you know which gear you're in). This is a marvellous system, with a conventional clutch and gearbox configuration (albeit electronically controlled) but it's marred by the horrendous lag in gear change. Admittedly it has probably been engineered for maximum economy, but I never managed to get used to the pause before the next gear engages. Automatic mode involves the same painful wait, but the changes are performed at the car's will, and are mostly very well judged. There are occasions when it really doesn't understand what you're up to and changes at just the wrong moment, such as changing up a gear when you're powering through a corner, (although this is not terminal as any ill effects will be limited by the lateral-G sensor) but on the whole it can be forgiven for this as it's not the sort of car that's going to be driven to its limits that often. And of course you also have the traction control and active braking to get you out of any tricky situations, which they do remarkably well.

The car handles well - the suspension can be harsh, but rarely uncomfortable, allowing just the right amount of roll. In fact you can safely push the car way beyond what feels safe and escape without harm. If provoked the car will understeer, but backing off easily corrects this, and if you don't back off, the electronics make jolly well sure you do by restricting the throttle. On the motorway the car maintains its composure remarkably well, and in 6th gear 80mph is at a relaxed 3500rpm although conversation does require a raised voice. The suspension is perfect for this environment and the car manages to keep up with the traffic (it is electronically restricted to 84mph). The engine isn't particularly torquey low down, but when the turbo cuts in, the power is delivered quite adequately. The turbo characteristics are more those of a turbo-diesel than a performance car, but they give the car a definite feel of power. Despite the plethora of technology the car manages to feel surprisingly un-synthetic, and one is still very much involved in the driving experience.

The fuel economy is very good. During the week I had the car, I averaged 55mpg - a far cry from what I'm used to. This was a mixture of London commuting, motorway and cross-country driving. And the fill-up only costs about £12-14!

The Smart really comes into its own in London - no more are those frustrating gaps that are just too small to fit through - it nips in and out and around and back and forth with ease, and the automatic mode is an absolute blessing. I'm a staunch supporter of manual gears, but I often wish I were in an automatic after mile upon mile of stop-go traffic. Now all it takes is the press of a button and endless gear changes between first and second are a thing of the past. My only gripe here is that progress can be slightly jerky due to the air con compressor, and at very slow speeds the automatic clutch also causes some jerkiness. Even parking is viable, but annoyingly it still costs just as much as a big car unless you're lucky enough to find another Smart to share a space with! (You can get a 50% discount on some cross-channel ferries though).

In-cabin storage space is generous - although there's no glovebox, there are two capacious door bins. There's also room behind the seats, as well as underneath (assuming you don't have the CD autochanger) and an optional drawer is available to go under the driver's seat. Finally there's a large tray on top of the dashboard, but I tended to find things rolled around in it rather too much and could end up rolling right out. The boot is sufficient considering the size of the car - there's enough room for a couple of weekend bags or a reasonable amount of shopping, and a cover pulls across to hide any valuable contents.

The stereo is somewhat disappointing - in fact this is the only thing I can fault in the otherwise complete line-up of technology. The sound quality is slightly tinny and there's no CD player, just a radio/cassette. In fact an autochanger and 'sound set' are available for an extra £467, which I'd certainly take. The sound set comprises two tweeters, 2 bass reflex speakers and a frequency switcher, which would amply satiate my needs!

Something odd I noticed is that people are proud to drive these cars - I had several other Smart drivers waving at me during the week - this is a phenomenon I've only ever experienced before in a classic car. This just helps to add to the character of the driving experience.

Grudgingly, I have to admit that I'm converted. The Smart achieves what very few other small cars can - a refined, comfortable, and sturdy ride in an environment that feels anything but cheap. OK, there is the odd bit of plasticky plastic here and there, but I can forgive this, given the quality of the overall package. Comparing it to something like a Ka, it is hard to understand how MCC have managed to fit in so much technology and quality for the price. I'd go as far as saying this is the perfect second-car. In fact so good that if the restricted luggage space and seating are not an issue it would easily be a more than adequate first car.

Road test: 2001 Smart Passion - June 2002
Story and images by Adam Jefferson

The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image.

Technical specifications

Price at time of story: £7965.00 (right hand drive in the UK)
Performance
Max speed (mph): 84 (electronically limited).
0-62.5 mph (seconds): 17.2 (17.5 with softouch).
Urban mpg: 48.7 (47.1 with softouch).
Extra urban mpg: 68.9 (65.7 with softouch).
Combined mpg: 60.1 (57.7 with softouch).
Engine
Turbocharged three cylinder, in-line, rear mounted, with two spark plugs per cylinder. Boost pressure is 0.8 bar, with 1.0 bar on overboost.
Cubic capacity: 599cc.
Bore x stroke (mm): 63.5 x 63.0.
Valve gear: Two valves per cylinder.
Fuel system: Electronic multi-point injection.
Max power (bhp): 54 at 5250 rpm.
Max torque (Nm): 80 at 2000-4500 rpm (88 on overboost).

Transmission
Six-speed sequential manual (softip) with switchable automatic mode (softouch). Rear wheel drive.
Single dry plate clutch with electronic actuation.

Chassis
Front: Independent MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar.
Rear: Centrally mounted De Dion axle, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers and anti-roll bar.
Steering: Speed sensitive electric power assisted rack and pinion.
Turning circle (diameter): 8.7m.
Brakes: Front discs, rear drums. Anti-lock braking system (ABS) with electronic braking force distribution (EBD).
Wheels: 4 x 15 inch alloy front / 5.5 x 15 inch alloy rear.
Tyres: 145/65 R15 front / 175/55 R15 rear.

Dimensions
Length (mm): 2500.
Width (mm): 1515.
Height (mm): 1549.
Wheelbase (mm): 1812.
Kerb weight (kg): 720.
Fuel tank capacity (litres): 35.


Picture gallery

The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image. The Smart Passion. Photograph by Adam Jefferson. Click here for a larger image.
 

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