Why I drive a weird little car… A Smart Roadster
Is it electric? If I had a dollar for every time that question has been asked I would have enough spare change to buy another weird little car.
MY REGULAR DRIVE is a 2004 SMART Roadster, a product of Mercedes-Benz and closely related to the SMART ForTwo (had one of them in the family fleet too) but with a very different character and capability.
It was a sales disaster for MB, teething problems and serious warranty costs through water damaged electronics led to MB pulling the pin in 2006. For Australia, the pricing and positioning as part of the Mercedes range was never going to work; $40K on-road with high-end dealer servicing costs was never going to stack up well against the likes of an MX-5. Only around 200 made it to Australia and some of those cars took years to sell.
They came stuffed full of inherent flaws and quirkiness. Built on a city car platform and weighing more than it should with limited factory and aftermarket support. 700cc, 3 cylinder 2 valve engine with Turbo. Complex electronics that are difficult to modify. Slow, robotised 3-speed transmission with 2-speed final drive (so 2×3 = 6 speed sequential). Poor steering feel with excessive turns lock-to-lock. Water leaks potentially killing the electronics and/or growing a nice crop of carpet mould. Slow, really slow… 0-100kph well over 10 seconds and a fast one is still over 8 seconds. It’s noisy and harsh on the highway…
But… there are many great things about this car. It drives far better than it has any right to. It is rare, few in Australia originally and falling fast as they get written off by insurance companies for having bent radio antenna. You will be entertained by the ‘what is it?’, ‘is it electric?’ questions from strangers, in particular when you are asked while in the process of filling with 98.
Although you will be left behind by a Prius in a straight line, the Roadster exhibits snarling, farting, whistling character with perceived level of performance well above the reality. The feel of driving pretty much like you stole it, but without the overt antisocial display that attracts the wrong sort of attention. It’s tiny, a new classification of parking spots become available to you if you can perform the correct gymnastics to squeeze through the low door openings.
Although tiny, Germans designed it for 2-metre tall occupants and with a retractable/removable roof to let the sky in. The HVAC works well and the instruments and controls are logically laid out but with an element of ‘funky’ (as is the SMART way).
Think of this weird little car as the Chihuahua version of a Lotus Elise, it just doesn’t know it isn’t a real sportscar. You can’t get a mid-engined, turbocharged, convertible European car at a lower entry and running price.
Mine has evolved from an abused, stock standard poverty pack, to an abused but maintained and sensibly modified experience. Working out how to modify these things isn’t necessarily easy or cheap, but with some research and sensible exploitation of friendships and social media networking the cost becomes less of an issue.
A full wheel and tyre upgrade cost less than the cost of a pair of tyres on my 4WD and you can go very sticky without fussing about tyre life. Adjustable suspension was a bolt-on affair although getting the settings to work so you can steer the thing took a few goes. The engine can be left alone internally, responding well to tweaking the wastegate actuator and loading a new ECU map. The lift in torque, extended rpm range and available performance largely offsets the poor gearbox via less need to shift gear. I went a bit further with modifications and a remap that I thought might stretch the friendship with reliability, but has been rock solid.
Keeping the modifications simple and to fairly high standards, I haven’t broken anything while having improved the dynamic and aural experience.
The Roadster has been a pleasant place to be during a commute and has been used for weekend trips, trackday work, hillclimbs and even a 4WD trial.
Recently, I went looking for a replacement and came up blank, everything I looked at and drove was more powerful, faster, more comfortable, safer and less weird… but to make them fun around the suburbs you had to drive in a style likely to get you arrested.
So the Roadster remains my most driven car as well as the cheapest to run.
With appropriate service from a specialist the Roadster is solidly reliable, wears out tyres and brakes by years rather than kilometres and only exceeds 6L/100km on a racetrack.
Maybe this car defines me as an enthusiast, or a nut job with a fetish for weird little cars, but I’m not alone, I have found a number of Roadster owners also own either a Land Rover D3/4, RRS or a Lotus as their ‘other car’. This surely makes me a special kind of nut as I have the D4 and Europa.
When it comes down to it, a weird car is only really weird if you don’t understand it. I understand mine, but why are you driving that weird hybrid? The greatness of a car is subjective on many levels, so don’t over analyse it if you can just enjoy the drive.
As a final point, weird little cars bring people together technically and socially. I have personally made some great friendships and very useful technical connections from the simple process of ‘talking about our little cars’.