The Smart ForTwo may well be anathema to enthusiasts, considering its mediocre dynamics. However, the Daimler division did dip its toes in the enthusiast market. And here we have it: a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive, turbocharged, European roadster, but not like any other.
Like the forfour, the smart roadster was part of an ambitious expansion of its city car brand and, again like the forfour, it was short-lived. While its larger, four-door counterpart was axed due to Daimler’s divestment from a shared Dutch factory, the Smart Roadster was axed because it was costing the company too much money.
Quite simply, the Roadster leaked. In fact, it was the cost of warranty claims that caused DaimlerChrysler to pull the plug on the Roadster after a short three-year run, even though the car had proved to be a strong seller. DaimlerChrysler’s city car brand was already losing money and the Roadster’s issues had compounded things. Ironically, Smart could have found great success with a crossover model they were developing called the ForMore. Alas, it was cancelled during the post-Roadster restructuring of the brand.
In order to understand the Roadster, it’s best not to think of it as a sports car, even if it is a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive, turbocharged, European roadster. Sports cars typically have larger engines than the Roadster’s, after all—a 700cc, turbocharged, three-cylinder engine in three states of tune, with either 61 or 80 horsepower. The latter had a top speed of 109 mph. The Roadster shared its basic platform with the ForTwo, although total length was 134.9 inches—just under 40 inches longer than a ForTwo.
They say it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, and the Roadster sauntered to 60mph in just under 11 seconds with the more powerful of the two engines. 11 seconds sure felt faster in a Roadster than in a Nissan Sentra. Of course, the Roadster wasn’t built for drag races. Instead, it was a featherweight with sharp handling and a surprisingly compliant ride. It’s remarkable that Smart could fashion such a precise roadster out of the dorky ForTwo.
Alas, despite weighing 500 pounds less than a NB MX-5/Miata at 1740 pounds, the Roadster wasn’t quite as fun-to-drive as you might think. Unsurprisingly for a Smart, the six-speed semi-automatic transmission lurched from gear to gear. Best to put it in manual mode then and change gears using the shifter or the optional paddle shifters, although even then the transmission would change gears of its own accord. One wonders why an actual manual transmission wasn’t offered, like on the MX-5/Miata.
The electric power steering also scrambled communication between the road and the driver. The electronic stability control could also be intrusive. It seemed like the fundamentals were there for a genuinely fun roadster, but technology got in the way. Funny, Mazda didn’t seem to have any problems…
In fact, Wheels proffered the most damning criticism of the Roadster, stating in their review, “It’s not a good car at any price, but at just a few thousand dollars less than a Mazda MX-5, it’s ridiculous.”
The aforementioned leaking roof consisted of a cloth center section that rolled back electrically and side rails that could be removed and stashed in the trunk. But removing the side rails could be cumbersome and further reduced trunk/under-hood storage space, so it made more sense to just leave them in. The Coupé model had a glass targa roof that added about 55 pounds of weight and a little extra to the price, but had more cargo capacity at the back. That being said, nobody was buying a Smart Roadster or a Roadster Coupé for their practicality…
Those seeking extra performance could purchase a Brabus-tuned version with 100 hp and a firmer suspension, as well as some sporty aesthetic enhancements to the interior and exterior.
The Roadster received some big-screen exposure in the film Knight & Day, starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. The featured vehicles were actually outfitted with engines from the Suzuki GSXR1000 motorcycle, for improved throttle response. If you have a Roadster or even a ForTwo, a British company called Smartuki will sell you the parts needed for conversion (and ship them overseas).
I was lucky to have spotted two Roadsters in Brisbane, considering only around 200 of these were sold in Australia. The Roadster Coupe I photographed was in Mexico City, and one wonders how many of these decidedly niche vehicles were sold there. In total, 43,091 Roadsters were built between 2003 and 2005, predominantly for the European market.
The Roadster almost lived a second life thanks to the Project Kimber consortium, who negotiated with DaimlerChrysler to obtain the tooling. The Roadster would have received a makeover and a new (old) name – the resurrected AC nameplate – and would have been manufactured in the UK. Sadly, the project never came to fruition.
As I was putting the finishing touches on this article, I drove past the yellow Roadster near my house and discovered it had a new companion. How strange that 75% of the Roadsters I’ve seen have been in the same drab gray, considering how quirky the design is.
I’ve no doubt they are owned by the same person who, for all the Roadster’s faults, likely adores the little Smart. After all, there’s precious little else from the 21st century like the Roadster. A Roadster owner likely looks past the car’s flaws – the leaking roof, the jerky transmission – and admires the car’s character. And although the Roadster is diminutive and doesn’t have much power, it has character in spades.
Curbside Capsule: 2004-06 smart ForFour – Not Dumb, Just Different
COAL (COJL) – 2005 Smart ForTwo Passion – A Friend Till the End
This would have made a nice EV and probably enjoyed more success than the original Tesla Roadster due to its less ambitious engine and size.
Yes indeed, with snappy electric torque instead of the funky semi-automatic it would have been great fun. Its 2003-05 time was a little early for affordable lithium-ion batteries, however. The Tesla Roadster was ahead of its time in 2008, with a far higher price than any Smart could have charged of course.
All the reviews I’ve read of the Smart Car say the EV is the best version. This would be a good candidate for a EV restomod in a few years using a model 3 or Spark EV battery module and motor as the donor.
As a mini/micro car fan, I was titillated by the image of a small car 20 inches shorter than a Miata that had not registered in my psyche before. I immediately did the arithmetic to figure out when the car would be old enough to easily be imported (2028?), and was crestfallen to realize I’ll be 78, and likely too rickety to get in and out of it.
But, reading on, the disappointment grew about typical Smart wrongheaded product development and a missed opportunity to make a sports car out of such a visually appealing upstart. The gray car is a waste, but the yellow one looks like a perky little goldfinch. You want it to be as much fun as it appears to be. What a shame.
These seemed an impressive expansion of the smart brand at the time, and attractive, too. Shame about their troubles, but thanks for detailing it all here.
Quite the fortuitous shot with the Capri in the first one, another “sports car” that never lived up to its potential!
My room-mate my freshman year of college had the Mercury-badged version of the Capri. The roof leaked like a sieve and at times needed to be held together by hand. The manual transmission was crisp, but jarring. And the less said about the engine, the better.
That said, this was in 2011, so his Mercury Capri was not by any means a new car at that time.
Funny I mentioned this car in the real fiat 500 article 2 days ago, as an example of cars that i could admire for being original, instead of “retro” cars like the new 500. Which i dont admire…. What a fluke.
And based on its foibles… Maybe a bad example.
Has to have the largest? longest Targa bar ever put on a car. Have read the so short wheelbase is a rough ride unless the pavement is pool table smooth.
A KIA, a Subaru, and a Toyota dealer walk into a bar…. All joking aside, what a cute little car and a great find.
So is the punchline a Scion FT-86 driven by a Hamster? 🙂
I’ve been a fairly steady reader of the British magazine CAR and while I remember reading about this car I don’t remember reading about some of the foibles mentioned here. But, then again, the British seem a lot more forgiving of faults in their cars.
I knew money was the reason why smart nearly collapsed, yet the leaking roof issue on the roadster is something I had never heard of before today.
As far as remarks about muddled engineering, smart (and perhaps Mercedes-Benz?) should have thrown in the towel way back when it was discovered that the original fortwo was prone to flipping over. Re-engineering the fortwo to pass the “moose test” supposedly cost a fortune, the beginning of something of a pattern at smart, apparently.
They didn’t stop making them because of a leaky roof or because they didn’t sell, but because they were losing money on every single one of them. The whole Smart endeavour has been one giant money pit for Daimler Benz of GM10-like proportions. I don’t remember the exact figures, if it was five or seven thousand dollars they lost on every Roadster, and the more they sold the more they lost. So, that’s why it was cut short after only three years, they could easily have continued producing them for another four or seven years, because they sold fairly good.
Could have made a good ‘Midget’ alongside the bigger MGF.
I had completely forgotten about these. I still see the occasional Smart For Two but that is it. I am not sure I can ever recall seeing one of these in person. And you have found all these? Color me impressed.
They never sold them over here. I think there was one at either the Detroit or Chicago Auto Show when they also showed the ForFour but ended up punting instead and just bringing the ForTwo over…
I recently saw a couple of these in Rome. I was impressed with the looks and wondered why Smart never threw a few on the boat along with the SmartCars. This article sure answers that question. It’s too bad.
Honda makes a Kei that reminds me of the Smart Roadster. I really want one. I guess I have some mini-roadster fetish or something,
Yeah, the roadster did sort of make me think of a Cubist rendering of a Honda Beat. The coupe/hatchback version looks like it wants to be a CRX when it grows up. Somehow, cars that attempt to be cute and fall short of the mark tend to be some of the most dismal failures in the marketplace.
I think smart gets an unfair rap; it was designed for a singular purpose it does very well (rarely encountered in our country). Driving the smart as a highway cruiser is doing something pretty nutty… like using a pickup as a family or commuter car. Oh, wait…
That Capri in the background though…
Another failed Miata competitor, hilariously made by Mazda themselves.
Mazda had some input when the car was being designed in Italy, but not made by Mazda.
I also immediately noticed the Capri photobomb!
Uh, no. This is a convertible Capri. That was just… sad.
The original Miata got everything right – style, performance, reliability, & driving fun.
Happy Motoring, Mark
Nice account of a n interesting, if flawed, car.
We still see these around – I often see and follow one on my daily commute – but they always seemed an acquired taste against an MX-5 or even a late MG TF.
I understood Project Kimber was to use the MG name, planning to extract it from Nanjing and SIAC and build the car in Wales. Hence the “Kimber” name I guess. Attractive to enthusiasts, and completely fanciful from a business perspective.
My recollection is that they arranged to use the AC name after their bid for the remnants of MG Rover failed.
Great piece, Will. And another bizarre (reverse?) CC Effect. I saw my very first (and only) Roadster Coupé just earlier this month in Italy. I thought (hoped) it was a new model that we’d be seeing at some point in the U.S. Given its faults that you’ve laid out, it’s probably not a bad thing we didn’t get this one.
I had to double-check the badge on the one I saw to make sure it was a Smart! The Coupé looked a little like a modern, Lotus-sized Honda CRX. It looked cool to me.
Good work Will. I didn’t know there were so few of these here but it makes sense. I used to see one occasionally on my way to work, but haven’t seen one for a while.
I wonder if anyone has converted the gearboxes to manual? It seems that any single clutch automated manual is a bad idea. The bike engine conversion is no doubt a better outcome, but a lot more work.
I guess the wonky drivetrain was enough to doom the car, but it would have been cool to have here in the US. I’m sure one of our ingenious folks over here could have wedged a motorcycle engine or a even a tiny turbo motor into one of these.
Since I’ll never have another excuse again to post this picture anywhere, here’s the picture of the Smart Roadster I saw in Rome. I guess they really are all Silver colored.
In my non-stellar “career” as a Motoring Journalist I got to go on exactly ONE press junket, flown up to SF to drive Smart4Twos around Silicon Valley in 2007 (I think). Not being familiar with the tight scripting of these things I was hoping to be handed the keys and told to be back by cocktail time, free to crank the little dear over all my favorite roads up there. Instead I got to retrace the same dull parkways I had commuted on years before, little changed and none for better.
There was however considerable face time with D-B people, including the guy who’d been Chief Design Engineer and several marketing people who were actually the least reverent ones there. Not one of them, however, would hear one negative word about that godawful transmission, although among the fellow journalists (with or without drinks in hand) that was the one thing that everyone hated. The True Believers would say, at most, that we weren’t driving it correctly. Just learn to trust it, don’t rush it! But left in Auto mode the 1-2 shift would occur well before any torque did, thus inviting the Cadillac on your butt to boot you a few yards farther. My co-driver and I, both well acquainted with dry-shifting motorcycles, agreed that cranking the little triple to 2500 or so and snapping the shift with a brief letoff of the gas pedal was the way to go, though not exactly tranquil. Once underway, however, the car was actually fun, with nice direct steering and easy to place in a corner or in traffic. And driving from SJ to SF on Rt 280 on a blustery, rainy morning at 70-80 mph amongst the big cars and semis settled any doubts about the little dear’s road stability. My Subaru gets blown around worse.
I was eager to try the electric version, which I understand will be all of them soon, but while they did improve the car greatly by canning that awful gearbox, puny performance and limited range added up to Not Yet … although they are said to be working on it.