Right now, there are two major trends in the automotive industry. Firstly, luxury brands have been expanding their ranges downwards with cars like the Audi A1 and BMW 2-Series Active Tourer. In particular, Mercedes-Benz is making hay with its A, CLA and GLA front- and all-wheel-drive compacts. Secondly, automakers are realising one of the best ways to improve fuel efficiency is to reduce weight. The smart ForFour was ahead of its time, offering a stylish, lightweight and fun-to-drive compact with a semi-prestige badge, but the mid-2000s were apparently the wrong time for it.
Underneath its quirky, two-tone exterior was a platform shared with the subcompact Mitsubishi Colt. Both cars were manufactured at Mitsubishi’s NedCar facility in the Netherlands. This was the same factory that had once been co-owned by Volvo, and manufactured the first Volvo S40 and V40 and the Mitsubishi Carisma and Space Star, and which will soon produce Minis now that Mitsubishi has vacated the premises.
A conventional front-wheel-drive compact with a transverse-mounted engine, the ForFour was four inches longer than a Mini Cooper; wheelbase was 98.43 inches, or around 1.5 inches longer than the Mini.
Its platform mate, the Colt, was met with a lukewarm reaction from the automotive press, but the smart was better received despite sharing 60% of its components. The shared componentry included the Mitsubishi-sourced 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5 four-cylinder engines, with power output ranging from 63 hp to 108 hp. The ForFour also received smart’s first diesel, a three-cylinder 1.5 common rail unit from the Mercedes A-Class, in either 67 hp or 94 hp versions.
The ForFour was fairly fun to drive, although its electric steering was regarded as somewhat feel-free. A sports suspension option was available, but it aided handling to the detriment of the ForFour’s ride.
The flagship ForFour bore the BRABUS badge. Fettled by the well-known, Mercedes-specialist tuning house, this cooking ForFour produced 175 hp and 170 ft-lbs from its turbocharged 1.5. All ForFours were impressively light – curb weight of 2400 lbs – so the BRABUS could really scoot. The 0-60 dash was accomplished in around 7 seconds, and the only transmission available was a five-speed manual.
Other ForFours received either the manual or a six-speed clutchless transmission that was shiftable via either steering wheel-mounted paddles or the gearstick.
The interior had similarly funky styling to the exterior, and seated four occupants. The rear bench seat slid 6 inches so that you could prioritize either occupant comfort or luggage space.
Some critics found the ForFour overpriced. Sized closer to a Fiesta but priced like a Focus, the smart may not have seemed like a smart buy but Daimler was clearly targeting the kind of fashion-conscious buyer who would opt for a flashy Mini or Beetle over a more conservative compact. In Australia, the ForFour also undercut the Mercedes A-Class by a sizeable $10k.
Whether it was the quirky styling or the pricing, the ForFour was a slow seller. It lasted just three years before being axed, but there was another reason for the ForFour’s early demise. DaimlerChrysler had agreed to buy 50% of the NedCar facility, but rescinded its offer when they refused to back a rescue package for their Japanese alliance partner. The Germans chose to extricate themselves from their ailing ally, and the smart ForFour was sacrificed in the process.
Although smart was only a fledgling brand, It’s unlikely the added prestige of a Mercedes badge would have helped the ForFour in the market. Entry-level offerings like the BMW 3-Series Compact and Mercedes C-Class SportCoupe/CLC were not the sales sensations their descendants have become. Mercedes also had the tallboy A-Class in its menagerie already, which was selling adequately but predominately to older buyers.
I’ll be honest: I loathe smart’s core product, the ForTwo. While the concept is novel if not universally useful, the execution has always been poor. Goofy styling, lousy dynamics and disappointing fuel economy render the car pretty redundant unless you really must fit into small parking spaces. The division has also been a fiscal black hole, costing its corporate parent billions over the years. To add insult to injury, Toyota developed a rival – the Toyota/Scion iQ – which was better in every way, and even it sold poorly and has now been axed. The Smart ForTwo has been offered since 1998 and it has never met its target of 200,000 annual units.
The ForFour and the short-lived Roadster showed promise as logical extensions of the very limited smart brand. The former offered quirky styling but more conventional packaging, and the latter had striking styling and excellent dynamics. Instead of building on this momentum, Daimler decided to continue sinking money into the ForTwo, cancelling a planned compact SUV that could quite possibly have taken off.
Current smart ForFour (above), Renault Twingo (below)
The ForFour name has now returned on a hatchback riding the rear-engine Renault Twingo platform. It now looks like a bloated, distended ForTwo, while its platform donor looks pert, perky and will probably age quite well.
When people hear “smart”, they picture the ForTwo. It may be the iconic smart, but it wasn’t the best. The Roadster was a helluva lot more fun, and the ForFour was a much more resolved offering. And yet, Daimler has stuck with the ForTwo for almost two decades.
N.B. The name may appear misspelled, but Daimler declared the brand should be in lowercase. As for the model name, it seems to be written differently everywhere you go: forfour, ForFour, etc. It’s one of the most frustrating examples of punctuation in a vehicle name since the Kia pro_cee’d or the Volkswagen up!