Miles of smiles
The Smart ForTwo nips past a tram and halts sharply at a set of lights in Happy Valley. Pedestrians smile at the tiny metallic-green car's sudden stop. A teenager points at the two-seater's cheeky, smiley grille and his mother laughs when I try to rev the Smart's weeny, one-litre engine like a Ferrari.
But then the 2.69-metre Smart draws smirks and smiles wherever it goes, as its trendy, garish predecessor did seven years ago.
There are 'about 400 or 500' ForTwos here, local dealer smart-hongkong says, but critics say past models have been mere toys: a stylish third car in Shouson Hill, or an expensive Mid-Levels drive that often shifted at its own pace. Scores can appear at game-filled local SmartClub events, but you might have to look hard to find one during rush-hour in Central.
The latest ForTwo is a more serious commuter, however. This 71hp micro hybrid drive coupe (HK$133,722) is 30mm longer than its predecessors and is 1.75 metres wide (with mirrors), but it scoots round corners and cuts into traffic gaps with ease. This ForTwo is also a smoother drive than its predecessors, first because its three-cylinder engine lacks a turbo and the associated lag and, significantly, because the Softip gearbox now has five gears and has at last been tweaked to shift when it is told.
The transmission can still jolt a newbie on downward shifts above Bowen Road, and you might need to follow the speedometer's arrow up or down prompts for gear changes in the undulations around Black's Link, but it's a vast improvement on the hokey-cokey jerk of its six-shift forerunner.
The manual 'flick' stick is dodgem simple on bends and hill climbs. The paddle shifts suffice on straights although the automatic still nannies on gradients. The brake pedal seems higher than the accelerator, which slows heel and toeing, but the right foot should find its rhythm after a couple of hours.
The marque has jazzed up the ForTwo with body-coloured front and rear aprons, side skirts and filler cap, optional daytime running LED lights and several new alloy designs for its 15-inch wheels.
Now available with plastic body panels in seven colours and a new Tridion safety cell option in white, ForTwos range from the basic 'no-frills' 61hp Pure (HK$99,000), the sporty Pulse and more luxurious Passion variants of coupe and cabrio models (HK$175,000). There is also a souped-up 102hp Brabus range (from HK$214,000). New options include red or blue soft tops for the cabrio or stick-on transfers (HK$9,000). The lower tailgate seems more mum-friendly with just one release lever, but you still have to open the upper window and lower sections instead of a single back hatch to pack small pets or groceries. Even so, the ForTwo has cubbyholes, nets, retaining straps, drinks holders, an ashtray and Smart even sells a line of cold boxes and a bike rack.
The test car's front passenger seats fold for a piddly 340 litres of boot space, or a weekly cartful of shopping, the marque says. The centre console has a new stowage box at its base, a redesigned glove compartment and dimmable LED lights around the cabin. The steering wheel is comfortable leather and the instrument panel is less fussy in black and with clear, restyled dials. The fabric and leather-optic seats are large and firm on an arthritic back and come in red, black or beige. A six-footer can stretch as fully in a Smart as in the Porsche Boxster.
The air-conditioning and dust-filter unit are a triumph in simple, practical design, and a predominantly black interior makes the ForTwo seem a more understated, grown-up ride. The cooling system and the radio/CD/DVD player can impress the young and are easily controlled by well-marked dashboard switching on the move. There are also slots for music and pictures and an iPod port.
The coupe's panoramic plastic roof brightens the cabin, but you might need its pull-over blind to prevent a hot-house effect in summer. The ForTwo offers excellent front and side traffic views, but rear vision is poor, thanks to wide rear pillars and small side mirrors. The headrests also obscure much of the mirror's rear view, but parking is still easy if you look over your shoulder.
The test car runs well in town and an electronic stop-start system shuts the engine to save idling when the car is halted in traffic. The three-cylinder block whines over 4,000rpm and the rear-wheel-drive labours up Mount Austin Road in automatic, but the Smart seems happy in manual shifts between first and second on The Peak's steepest inclines, where trophy Porsches and Aston Martins seem quaintly oversized for their streets.
The ForTwo's steering is responsive on bends but its 8.8-metre turning circle seems wider than expected as the turn angle has been limited for safety reasons, the dealer says. The model is packed with safety electronics and earned four stars in 2007 NCAP Euro crash tests. The Volkswagen Polo earned five, but the Smart seems safer than the four-seater Subaru R2, which has yet to earn an NCAP rating.
The Audi A1 (from HK$261,000) and the Mini Cooper (from HK$279,800) are as manoeuvrable, chic and fun, but the test car is perhaps as affordable and more roomy for a lone commute or school-run driver. After a HK$13,400 down payment, a ForTwo owner can expect to pay HK$2,305 a month for the car over five years, about HK$4,000 a month for running and parking costs and HK$4,698 for annual insurance, smart-hongkong says.
Hyundai, Toyota and Nissan's compacts might cost less, but the new Smart ForTwo is better-finished, arguably safer and has at last won green status in Hong Kong as an environmentally friendly petrol-driven car. More importantly, the Smart retains its old cheek, but drives more like a Mercedes-Benz. And it deserves stronger marketing in wasteful Hong Kong, where so many people still drive to work in much bigger cars and with at least three empty seats.
AT A GLANCE
What drives it? A three-cylinder, 71-horsepower, 999cc engine with a five-speed automatic transmission on 15-inch wheels.
How fast is it: Tootles to 100km/h in 13.7 seconds with a top speed of 145km/h.
How safe is it? Head, thorax and side airbags, tridion safety cell with crash absorbtion zones, electronic stability, active braking and more.
How thirsty is it? It sips 4.3 litres of petrol per 100km on a 33-litre tank.
How clean is it? The 1,020kg test car spews 97g/km of carbon dioxide.
Available: HK$133,722 at smart-hongkong, tel: 3428 8666 (Hung Hom) or 2895 7339 (Lee Gardens).