The Smart fortwo is one of those quirky, adorable and fun little city cars that's won the hearts of many despite being drastically flawed. Used as a fleet vehicle for car-sharing services around the nation, and also by convenience-loving, parking-spot-challenged city folk as an easy-to-drive appliance, the Smart once looked futuristic and cool but has aged in the past few years.
And so, parent company Mercedes-Benz threw a whole lot of money and research at their tiny cousins to try and make the Smart better (admit it: you thought I was going to write “smarter”) and revive its fanbase.
This then, is a battle of the old versus the new. The master versus the student. The groundbreaker versus the thing built on the ground the groundbuilder built and several other poorly formed tired clichés.
It’s not a surprise to anyone that the new generation of Smart is better. But how much better? And is it better in every way? Spoiler alert: there’s one key way in which it’s not.
Powertrain and Transmission
When the owner of the previous-generation Smart in this test, Baris Akyurek, heard I’d driven the new Smart earlier in the year his first question was: “Have they fixed the transmission?!” It’s a common refrain from Smart owners and the media, the single-clutch automated manual was slow in every way – something truly pronounced when driven back to back with the 2016 edition. The gearbox lags, kicks down slowly and feeds torque back through to the drivetrain with utter reluctance.
The new gearbox is far better. For one, it’s a dual-clutch now. The DCT is smoother, quicker to operate and does so without sapping the power completely from the engine. There is even a five-speed manual available for those who want it.
The engine itself gets a bump in power from a minuscule 70 hp and 68 lb-ft to a respectable 89 hp and 100 lb-ft. The engine noise is more muted in the new Smart and there is far less vibration.
There’s still not enough power – or rather not enough power allowed out by the computer – to push the Smart into a wild power-oversteer (at least not until a Brabus version arrives), but the Smart is now far more capable and powerful in a way that delivers confidence to the driver.
You might actually find yourself overtaken by a Smart on the highway now – seriously.
Ride and Handling
Out on the highway you’ll really feel the difference between the two generations. The slightly wider new Smart is far less susceptible to cross winds and doesn’t wander about in its lane as pronouncedly as the old one does. The Smart still feels the effects of the crowning in the road and the wind but holds its line more truly and stably.
The previous-generation Smart felt harsh and rough on patchier pavement, jolting me around uncomfortably in my seat, while the new one swallowed those same imperfections as well as most sub-compacts.
The newer Smart handles more confidently in general: corner entry speeds can be higher because the car seems happier to turn in without leaning over. Under braking, the conventional pedal box setup of the newer Smart makes for a dramatic improvement in brake feel. The floor-mounted pedal of old feels unnatural, stiff and disconcerting. The newer one operates exactly as you’d expect a brake pedal to operate.
That the older Smart in this test was a dowdy grey and the newer one an eye-catching vivid orange is one thing, that the older one looks like a Cozy Coupe and this one looks like a pug on steroids is quite another.
Now wider, with more sophisticated and tougher lines, the newer Smart is a stunning bit of kit. The older one was always charmingly quirky, but now finds itself dramatically outshone by its younger, sexier sibling.
Even the interior looks better: more colourful, more shapely and – despite the lack of an integrated infotainment screen – more modern. The sporty steering wheel, old-school sportscar-style pod for the tachometer and the dash-top air vents all add an air of theatre to the cabin of the 2016 Smart, and makes the 2014 model seem dated and plain in comparison.
That’s really the size of it – the new one is hotter, period.
The older Smart in our test had an integrated in-dash infotainment screen complete with navigation, and oddly, video.
The new one? A regular old radio and a telephone holder. At first glance, this seems like a bit of a cop-out. Want nav? Use your phone! How stingy!
But wait. Isn’t that why Apple Carplay and Android Auto integration is so good? People like using their phones. And an update coming to Android Auto later this year will obviate car integration – so Smart’s holder actually makes good sense. You can launch Android Auto or Apple Carplay with your phone in the holder and it’s exactly like any other car’s touchscreen. Better, even, because you’re probably more familiar with its swipes and things.
There are still regular knobs for volume and tuning on the standard radio, too – which takes care of my most common touchscreen whinge.
The older Smart got heated seats, but this one has automatic climate control. And cruise control. And steering wheel controls. When it all shakes out, the newer Smart is better equipped.
People who were shopping for a new Smart got a bit of a shock when they went to talk to the sales people at launch time. The new one is more expensive. The current base model is $17,300, up from $14,800 for the Pure base model in 2014. The 2014 Smart Pure (base) tested here also had the Pure Canadian Package which for $1,400 added navigation, rims, sunroof and foglights, bringing its total to $16,200.
Our 2016 Smart is a Passion trim, with a base price of $18,800 plus a bunch of options, including: six-speed DCT at $1,400, panoramic roof at $390, body panels in Lava Orange (metallic) for $395, powered and heated mirrors at $190, retractable cargo cover for $140, heated seats at $290, and forward collision warning $290. That's $3,095 worth of options thrown in for a total of $21,895 before freight and PDI and tax.
Also, the lease rates Smart previously offered were fantastic; the new lease rates – not so much. It’s a new car after all, and Mercedes-Benz is no longer interested in propping it up with finance incentives. So you will pay more for this Smart – but is that a bad thing?
Yes. Of course it is. People like to save money, not spend it. Is the new one still worth it? I think so. Just don’t go in thinking you’ll get the new Smart for old-Smart money.
In this segment, the old Smart takes the trophy. But it’s something of a consolation prize.
Where the old Smart felt like a tiny, tiny car, the new one feels like a car that happens to also be tiny. Besides, you can get it in manual. #Winning