Smart car

I nearly bought a car today. Which was a bit of a surprise, since I hadn’t intended to at all.

My Mini is three years old in October, and what with the combination of finance packages, waiting lists, and imminent filming, I need to decide fairly soon if I’m going to buy another one. Financially, I should have traded in the green Cooper for a Cooper S a year or more ago, but there we are. I didn’t in part because I’m still slightly torn between another (perky, amusing) Cooper, or a (fire-breathing, snarly) Cooper S. The latter’s supercharger makes a heck of a difference, with effects ranging from the predictably neck-snapping overtaking oomph through easier driving in traffic (there’s a wall of torque), to lower depreciation, to unimpressive fuel consumption and wince-inducing insurance quotes.

Spot my dilemma. The Cooper isn’t as good a buy now as it was three years ago, but in many ways I’m happy with it and, while occasionally I’d like a little more ‘go,’ I’m not exactly crying out for a Cooper S. On the other hand, I know I’d have a heap of fun with an S… and that I’d begrudge the extra cash… and that I’d love the supercharger whine, and…

So today, inexplicably, I found myself turning into a Mercedes showroom to have another look at the Smart Roadster Coupé. Now, those who know me know I’ve always had a soft spot for small 60s/70s British sports cars. They’re small, they’re uncomfortable and impractical, they’re not very quick, and they’re all quirky as hell. The Roadster is exactly the same idea, only without the dodgy electrics and terrible crash-protection. Pretty much everything else is in place.

It’s a terribly clever package: the mechanicals of the Smart city car grafted into a very light, low-slung, divisively pretty little plastic body, crammed with every bit of electronics and safety kit you can imagine. The fact that the execution is flawed somehow adds to the charm, since the old MGs and Triumphs and Lotus were dodgy as hell, too.

So, there’s almost enough luggage room to convince me that I could live with the thing – except, there’s no way my bike will go inside. I’m right on the edge of the adjustments for the seat and mirrors, but in the end I do fit in, in surprising comfort. Except that my right leg is almost entirely unsupported by the seat. Which may or may not prove painful (the Mini isn’t very good in this regard, either).

Having briefly scared the living daylights out of me, the terribly jolly ex-Mini-owning salesman swapped seats with me. It is, of course, a hoot to drive. It’s far from fast – my Mini is only a ‘tepid’ hatch, but would still beat the Roadster to 60 by as much as two seconds – but sitting that low in a small car, one feels like a total hooligan while ambling along at 20. Which I have to say I like. Partly because it’s safer, but also because – well, any car can exceed the limits. The fun lies elsewhere than outright speed.

The engine is glorious. It’s the same 700cc, three-cylinder, turbo-charged beer can found in the familiar Smart, only here it’s kicking out 80hp and has developed the most amazing Porsche-like snarl. It burbles along inconspicuously enough until you floor the throttle, then all hell breaks loose right behind your head. Silly grin time… until the auto-upshift kicks in a tad too early. Ah, the gearbox. Sorry, a tricked-out semi-automatic with paddle shifts may be cool in theory, but it’s ruddy awful in practice. But it’s one of those foibles one would become accustomed to – and all little roadsters need an achilles heel of a quirk, surely?

Crashing through bumps is about as much fun as you expect – not a whole lot. But it’s not as harsh a ride as I’d feared, and besides, what do you expect? Your bum’s about six inches off the ground, of course you can feel the road.

None of the above quite gets to why I like the thing, though. Sure, it’s a modern interpretation of my favourite class of car; it goes round corners well; it has a terrific little engine; it has enough foibles to be interesting. No, what’s really clever is that it still hits 60 to the gallon on the motorway. As a demonstration that one can be a concerned consumer and still have fun, it’s without equal. I’m not claiming that any car is environmentally-friendly, but… look, in a world that seems to be moving inexorably towards US-style faux-off-road SUVs, the Smart Roadster makes a hell of a statement, and it’s one with which I whole-heartedly agree.

Have I ordered one? No. Poke around online, and you’ll learn that the things leak like sieves, the dealers are awful, and, like the demonstrator I drove, they have more rattles than my nephew. Heck, it even passes the acid test of any sports car: my mother disapproves of the idea. But oddly, I’d be willing to put up with all that. No, the problem is: they’re flat-out expensive compared to a Mini. While the Mini still boasts a waiting list of at least six weeks, I could have a Roadster next Friday, with almost exactly the spec I’d want, from stock. With a thousand pounds off before we’ve even started haggling.

Why? I’m guessing, because they’re not selling. Why? Because they’re too damned expensive to start with, I reckon. Result: depreciation is looking slightly frightening, despite the dealer’s reassurance. A Roadster would cost me thousands more than a Mini Cooper (S or not), and while I might be willing to put up with its flaws, I don’t think I’m willing to spend perhaps three thousand pounds on making a statement. I’m not that willing to put my money where my mouth is.

I doubt I’ll change my mind. Shame. They nearly had me there., by the way.

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