Curbside Classic: 2003-05 Smart Roadster – Losing The Smart Money

(first posted 11/30/2017)      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 canceled 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.

Related Reading:

Curbside Capsule: 2004-06 smart ForFour – Not Dumb, Just Different

COAL (COJL) – 2005 Smart ForTwo Passion – A Friend Till the End