AT first glance you would hard pushed to see any visible difference between the new generation of SMART city-coupe and cabrio and the old.
Mainly because – apart from the badge – there isn’t one.
But make no mistake about it, changes there have been and the car is dramatically better for them.
In fact the new car retains only 30 per cent of the components of the vehicle introduced in 1998, but all of the new bits are under the skin.
SMART obviously took the “if its not broke don’t fix it” attitude, and decided that the trendy little car needed no cosmetic changes. But for the second generation car the company decided it did need to address three areas that had come in for criticism: the ride quality, the gearchange and the tendency to understeer.
All three have now been dramatically improved thanks to modern technology.
The ride quality is dramatically better thanks to the cars being fitted with an Electronic Stability Programme as standard, the only car in this class to get this feature. It means both coupe and cabrio handle dramatically better, with less roll, a smoother ride and far better cornering.
ESP means understeer and oversteer situations are now detected easily and corrected quickly, so the little car now positively encourages you to drive it quicker than before. And when you do, you find this new model is more stable, giving far more confidence to the motorist who prefers a sporting drive
As with the outgoing models the new cars all have automatic gearboxes, with the facility to change manually using a six-speed tiptronic system – move the gearlever forward to change up and back to change down.
The earlier cars, however, had the tendency to lurch slightly each time there was a gear change and when changing manually you had to lift off the accelerator to lessen the affect of this. The new 2003 model has all but done away with this problem and driving is much smoother.
The new cars also come with the kickdown facility normally associated with automatics to allow the driver to drop down a couple of gears quickly, simply by flooring the accelerator pedal hard.
Along with ESP come a host of other features to improve the new SMART.
You get Hydraulic Brake Control, for example, which means a 20 per cent reduction in stopping distances in an emergency. And for those people who might get a little too enthusiastic there is Cornering Brake Control, which prevents things going dramatically wrong if the driver suddenly brakes in mid corner while travelling too fast.
The new generation cars still use three cylinder, turbo-charged engines but there has been an increase in size from 599cc to 698cc for more power and torque. There is now a choice of 54 bhp or 61 bhp units, both with a top speed of 84 miles per hour.
With the 54 bhp engine, full power is available from just 1,800 revs and it will hit 62 mph in 18.3 seconds compared to the 15.5 seconds of its beefier brother.
Another useful feature now fitted as standard to the latest SMART is the hill start assist function, which ensures that after you take your foot off the brake pedal the brakes remain on for 0.7 seconds, allowing you time to move your foot to the accelerator without the car rolling backwards – ideal for learner drivers trying to master hill starts.
Smaller refinements include an interior light which dims slowly as you leave the car and an automatic off function to ensure you don’t leave your headlights on after parking the car.
Prices now range from £6,560 for the 50 bhp city-coupe in “pure” trim to £9,995 for the 61 bhp cabrio in “passion” trim.
The SMART-coupe and cabrio have definitely grown up. Physically they are no larger in size but they are worlds away from previous models in their ride and handling. More refinements mean more comfortable motoring both in city traffic and on the motorway.
To date some 450,000 models have been sold worldwide and some 20,000 in the UK. People obviously like the trendy style and ease of parking but until now not everyone has been sure of their handling.
The changes to the new generation look set to make that a thing of the past.