Cheeky chic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

This new Smart ForTwo attracts as much attention as its predecessor in the crawl of Connaught Road. Commuters point and van drivers chuckle at this little, yellow Coupe Pulse version, just as they did at the first ForTwo in 2002.

Smart (short for Swatch Mercedes Art) might be proud of such a reaction, because that's as good as it gets in the car capital of China. The acclaim is well deserved, for the marque has worked through its troubles to produce a hip'n'frisky two-seater with cheekier headlights, more muscular wings, and an extra 19.5cm in length that's said to improve rear protection and meet pedestrian safety laws in the US.

A show-off's delight, this pumped-up Pulse now seems more Action Man than Barbie's Ken, as if Smart has told its artistic, smiley and elegant survivor to scoot rather than mince into American showrooms.

The new interior is also more comfortable, spacious and probably safer, but it's lost some of its original vibe. The new transparent polycarbonate roof panel bathes the cabin in light and Hong Kong's neon, as in the Peugeot 206, but I miss the old model's S-shaped dashboard that tells passengers that the owner is outrageously quirky and hip.

Instead, the butch, new car gets a straight instrument panel that's also said to comply with US crash regulations. Even so, the ignition key is handy between the seats, entry and alighting is easy for the elderly or pregnant, and higher off the road than you think. The switch ergonomics are terrific, the stereo's a boombox and the seats ease tired backs.

The 220-litre boot is 70 litres bigger than its predecessor's and could take a couple of suitcases.

A new twin-section tailgate holds the convertible's roof bars and is said to take 50kg loads. The soft top in the cabriolet version is now fully automatic and adjustable, but I recommend the coupe in Hong Kong's fug.

This new, sporty Pulse is more agile than the old on its fat, little 15-inch wheels, even without the HK$4,200 power steering option, which is free on the plusher Passion version. Parking seems heavier than a Honda Jazz or Suzuki Swift, but only the picky will complain, for the 2.695-metre Smart is probably the best reverser in town, and little more than half the length of eight seaters such as the 2.3-litre Mazda8.

The 84-horsepower one-litre engine is easy up The Peak, offers a little wheel-squeal in North Point and has enough speed for overtaking on airport runs. The marque says the 750kg test car can top at an illegal 145km/h, or 10km/h more than its predecessor. This big-tyred Pulse seems stable on Mid-Levels bends and can zip between lights in Causeway Bay. Practical side mirrors make lane changes easy in tunnel traffic, but the rear-view mirror's shape can disconcert first-timers. The new Getrag automated, manual, five-speed transmission is also an improvement on the old ForTwo's box, but its shift rhythm took me half an hour to get used to. The uninitiated can lurch into second and lag into third, and you soon realise that the Volkswagen Polo, Suzuki Swift and Toyota Aygo are all smoother drives around town. Don't give up on this box, however, because the manual flippers are fine.

The ForTwo is also one of the cleanest cars in town, drinking just 4.9 litres of gas per 100km for the spew of 120 grams of CO2 per km. These emissions earn this two-seater lower tax rating overseas but, unlike the Mazda8 (190gpk) or the 3.2-litre Volkswagen Phaeton V6 (293gpk), the Smart ForTwo fails to meet the Environmental Protection Department's criteria for Green status and first-registration tax breaks in Hong Kong. And, the 88gpk Cdi diesel version, the Live Earth star, and Mercedes-Benz's showcase, still isn't imported here.

The new Smart seems safe, and won four stars in European crash tests, on October 24. Slammed in the front at 64km/h, and then a pole at 29km/h, the Tridion passenger cell was stable but 'structures in the dashboard presented a risk of injury to the knees and femurs of the driver and passenger', the testers said.

In side-impact tests at 50km/h, the 'dummy's head contacted the rubber window trim on the cant rail', the New Car Assessment Programme says. So, well done, Smart-Hong Kong for fitting head and thorax side airbags as standard. But in pedestrian tests at 40km/h, the front edge of the bonnet 'and those areas which might be struck by pedestrians' heads' were rated as 'predominantly poor'.

The BMW Mini, Fiat 500, Peugeot 207, Renault Modus and Toyota Yaris all have higher safety ratings - and two extra seats - but the Smart is unique and has a Mercedes-Benz stamp with a two-year warranty. At HK$139,800, the new ForTwo could be all you and your partner need for shopping, parties and beach runs.

Central seems bigger, and fellow drivers are a lot nicer to a Smart ForTwo. So, let's see one in Zung Fu's Causeway Bay showroom window. The ForTwo is the ideal car for Hong Kong - when you master its gears - and it deserves a more central home than Hung Hom.

At a glance: Smart ForTwo

What drives it? A 999cc, three-cylinder turbo engine with a five-speed transmission that can be switched to Softip manual on 15-inch wheels.

How fast is it? The marque says it hits 100km/h in about 11 seconds and tops at 145km/h. This car has all the speed you need in Hong Kong.

How thirsty is it? Drinks 4.9 litres per 100km.

How clean is it? Spews 120 grams of CO2 per km, and, with the unavailability of the 88gpk Cdi version in Hong Kong, remains the benchmark of our fug-factor reports in road tests.

How safe is it? Four star NCAP rating (right) with front and side airbags, with electronic stability, anti-lock braking and electronic brakeforce distribution systems backed by electronic brake and skid-control electronics, seat belts with tensioners and limiters, and automatic door lock when driving.

Nice touches: The panoramic sunroof, lane-changing, the radio and the smugness of watching lone commuters trying to negotiate bigger-engine, reverse-beeping seven-seater vans in one of the most congested cities on the planet.

Availability: The Coupe is HK$139,800 and the Cabriolet is HK$169,800 at smart-hongkong (tel: 3428 8666). The showroom is in Hung Hom, and can be reached from Central via the Hung Hom ferry and a taxi run to Zung Fu.