So my series of 12 articles entitled ‘Back to the Future Classics’, featured on our Western Group’s website throughout 2013, has come to an end. I have enjoyed compiling the list of vehicles and ‘re-visiting’ the cars included, to write about them.
The full list of contenders has been:
1. Ford Sierra (especially RS Cosworth versions); 2. DeLorean DMC-12; 3. Range Rover; 4. Peugeot 205 GTi; 5. Mazda MX-5; 6. Toyota MR2 ‘Mark I’; 7. Honda NSX; 8. BMW M3 (original, E30 version); 9. MG ZR, ZS, ZT; 10. Lancia Delta Integrale; 11. Suzuki Vitara (first generation) and 12. smart roadster.
As stated, this is my own personal selection of cars and in the same way as each of the BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ programmes can only include a total of eight gramophone records my choice of 12 cars is simply not enough, and there are many other models which could have been included on their various merits. Nevertheless, 12 cars are all I have been allocated to represent “12 of the most significant future classics launched in the last 30 years”. So here’s the last one…
No. 12 Smart Roadster
Small cars for city use became increasingly popular around the turn of the 21st century and in June 2000 it was announced by DaimlerChrysler UK that cars of the ‘smart’ brand would be sold officially in Britain.
By this time the new, tiny two seater – intended to revolutionise personal transport – had already been introduced, at the 1998 Paris Motor Show.
The vehicles were built by Micro Compact Car GmbH, part of DaimlerChryslerAG, builders of Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler and Jeep models.
Initially, following the model’s U.K. debut at the 2000 British International Motor Show, British customers were able to buy the smart only in left-hand drive form, with right-hand drive variants becoming available in 2001.
At the outset, the smart city-coupé and city cabriolet models (incidentally, redesignated smartfortwo coupé and cabrio respectively, from 1 January 2004) were both powered by a rear-mounted, three cylinder turbocharged 600cc petrol engine, with a power output of 44bhp, 54 bhp or 61 bhp, depending on the version.
In order to broaden the range, and to tap into the increasingly active market for affordable sports cars, it was decided to produce a compact two seater sports model, and this was shown at the 1999 Frankfurt Motor Show.
The boldly-styled new smart roadster and roadster-coupé were introduced in Britain at the 2002 Birmingham Motor Show, to be available to buyers in left-hand drive form early in 2003, with right-hand drive versions following in the autumn of 2003.
On the road prices for the right-hand drive models were set at £13,495 for the roadster, and £14,495 for the roadster-coupé (left-hand drive versions were considerably cheaper, and the lower-powered, 61 bhp entry-level variant was priced at £9,995).
Like the other smart models from which they were developed, the roadsters featured a core steel structure (powder-coated TRIDION safety cell) and easily-replaced plastic outer panelling, for lightness, robustness and ease of repair.
The sporty newcomers used the revised, 698cc version of the three cylinder turbocharged engine used in the second generation variants (announced in the U.K. in February 2003) of the original smarts.
For right-hand drive roadster and roadster-coupé models the power output was 80 bhp.
The roadster’s standard specification included such niceties as a radio/CD stereo system, an electrically-activated soft top, six spoke aluminium alloy sports road wheels (15 inch diameter), electrically-operated windows, electrically-assisted power steering, a leather finish for the steering wheel and gear lever knob, airbags for both the driver and passenger, and a six speed ‘SOFTIP’ sequential gearbox, incorporating a ‘SOFTOUCH’ automatic mode.
Buyers of the roadster-coupé were treated to even more goodies, in the form of air conditioning, a central arm rest, special 12 spoke wheels, a gloss-finish two-piece removable hard top, and a glass fastback – as well as increased storage space (103 litres more than in the roadster).
In addition, like the smart fortwo models, all roadster versions featured Electronic Stability Control (ESP) for improved dynamic performance. Additional functions incorporated within the ESP system were Hill Start Assist (HAS) and Hydraulic Brake Assist (HBA).
New and more powerful BRABUS variants were sold in Britain from May 2004. These uprated models featured sports suspension, a host of bodywork enhancements (notably the different grille, new front spoiler and side skirts), 17 inch sports aluminium alloy wheels, twin sports exhaust outlets, a leather-trimmed dashboard and a multitude of interior upgrades.
Importantly, these uprated models offered a power output of 101 bhp (23 per cent more than the standard cars), plus a useful hike in maximum torque, from 81 lb.ft. (110 Nm) to 95 lb.ft. (130 Nm). The roadster BRABUS was priced at £16,695, with the roadster-coupé version costing an additional £300.
ON THE ROAD
On paper, 80 bhp (for standard versions) doesn’t sound like much for a 21st Century sports car. However, the roadster models were hailed as great fun to drive, due in part to their relatively light weight and their inherent nimbleness. The effective power to weight ratio meant that the cars could accelerate reasonably rapidly from a standstill, and on the move.
For the record, zero to 62 mph took just under 11 seconds in a roadster variant, and the roadster-coupé was about 0.3 second slower while the theoretical top speed was around 113 mph.
More importantly for many buyers, the cars offered precise steering, pin-sharp handling and a good ride quality. They were also economical to run, with real-world overall fuel consumption typically working out at between 50 and 55 miles per gallon.
BRABUS versions were always even more fun to drive than the standard cars, and were considerably faster (for example, the top speed was in the order of 122 mph).
Faster still was the ‘one off’ V6 twin-engined biturbo roadster BRABUS, which inspired a limited edition of just 50 ‘RCR’ versions offered worldwide from June 2005 (incorporating BRABUS power upgrades, although not the twin engines…). In the U.K. these were priced at £17,295.
END OF THE PRODUCTION ROAD
The smart roadsters were widely acclaimed by the motoring press and buyers, and the models won many awards. Between September 2003 and July 2004, 2,500 examples had been sold in the U.K, and by mid-June 2005, total sales here had risen to 5,561. However, by this time it had already been decided to end production prematurely (in late 2005).
In turn, this meant that the cars were destined to become classics in their own time, with numbers necessarily limited and demand strong.
These innovative compact sports cars are full of character, refreshingly different from ‘mainstream’ sports models, exhilarating to drive and inexpensive to run, at least in terms of fuel costs. That said, smart roadsters are not without their problems, with water ingress and electrical malfunctions being widely reported as common ailments (and resulting warranty claims were costly…). However, for owners today such difficulties can be overcome (although some repairs can be pricey).
In conclusion, I feel that interest in these attractive roadsters is sure to continue and to increase and, as a result, asking prices will almost certainly rise too.
Oh gosh, that’s another modern classic that I’d better buy now then…