Smart way to
The Smart is a space-saver that’s great for stop-start traffic, writes KEVIN HEPWORTH
THE world’s newest hybrid car is hardly a hybrid at all. The Smart MHD has no electric motors to help it slip quietly away in the mornings, and no battery packs soaking up regenerative power from the brakes or pouring additional urge to wheels as the workload increases.
What it does have is a button marked Eco and a green light on the dash to make drivers feel good about their efforts to save the planet.
And it’s a case of horses for courses. The three-bar heater that seems indispensable in Nome, Alaska, will simply gather dust in a shop window in Bangkok.
The Smart Fortwo is crazy clever in the alleyways of Rome or the backstreets of Paris, but the little two-seater micro-car is far less popular in our wide brown land.
It is not that the Smart idea is any less clever or any less elegant, just that there is less opportunity to be struck by them.
I have long been a closet fan of the Smart concept — without really wanting to do it myself — which made the encounter with the Eco button an interesting one.
The Eco button’s function is to engage the stop-start capability in the Smart.
Similar systems are coming on everything from the Land Rover Freelander II to the full family of Volvos. The Smart’s uses a dualmode starter/generator and battery to shut down the three-cylinder, 1-litre, naturally aspirated engine when the car is braked to a halt, and restart it when the foot is lifted off the brake pedal.
What the off-again, on-again engine means is a claimed environmental benefit. Smart says fuel use is down six per cent to 4.7 litres for 100km on a combined cycle. Emission savings are 112gm of CO2 a kilometre.
For a petrol car these are pretty impressive figures— until you remember that to move the number of people held by any small sedan, you’d need twice as many cars.
That is probably what makes the Smart such a niche vehicle. It is a selfish car.
Off for a game of golf? It’s just you and your golf bag on the passenger seat.
Going shopping? Don’t take a passenger because they’ll have to walk home. An average family shop fills the Smart to overflowing.
The Smart is about satisfying very particular personal needs. There is no arguing the car’s 2.7m opens up never-before explored spaces for parking, and its fuel economy is easy on the wallet.
It is also one of the easiest cars to get in and out of. The upright body makes the seat height/ hip relationship very suitable for joints that may not move as well as they once did.
Interior space is also good. Head and shoulder room on the passenger side is generous.
There is nothing flash about the interior. There’s a small dash display for the speedo, a clock and tacho in two pods on top of the dash, and materials that are tactile and pleasing.
The supportive seats move enough for the driver to find a decent position in relation to the fixed steering wheel.
The biggest surprise is the performance. With only 52kW and a meagre 92Nm, it would be fair to assume the city car would struggle.
It doesn’t. A 13.3-second 0-100km/h is not exciting, but the combination of the engine and five-speed automated manual transmission handles most needs that arise in city traffic.
The changes aren’t overly smooth, especially if the manual mode is used, and peak performance is reached about 5000 revs.
Ride quality on the 15-inch wheels is reasonably well controlled, but cannot completely isolate the tall body, short wheelbase and narrow track from the laws of physics.
On the open road the claimed maximum top speed of 145km/h is not something a sane person would want, but the car will cruise quite comfortably at the speed limit.
However, getting away for the weekend has its problems. With two people on board the luggage space is restricted.
There is a narrow bin behind the seats into which you could squeeze a soft sports bag and suitbag, or a couple of briefcases.