I have something of a love/hate relationship with my current car, a Smart Roadster Coupé. On balance I think it’s fantastic, but at times it’s borderline rubbish. Mostly, the quirks keep it interesting, and it screws the environment somewhat less than most other cars out there (not exactly grounds for feeling virtuous, but there’s a relative aspect to such things). Whoever designed the gearbox must have really, really hated their employer, but the car’s still a hoot to drive. Mostly as a result of the engine, which was clearly fettled by people with an altogether different sense of engineering aesthetics. It’s a tiny, highly-strung, three-cylinder, turbocharged, wailing lunacy of a motor, stashed right behind the driver’s bum, barely bigger than a bundled-up sleeping bag but with a somewhat different character. 80bhp from 700cc is quite impressive, and they’re good for at least 105 with various insano-tune options, including a factory-fit version.
It has character, and even if that character is a bit moody it’s still fun enough for me to enjoy the thing. Overall, however, I have to admit that my previous Mini Cooper was as much of a blast to drive, considerably better bolted together, and somewhat more practical. The Roadster isn’t as impractical as you’d think, but I can’t get my bicycle in it let alone three or four people. In short, the Mini was the better car, though there’s a good argument that if the Roadster sported a ‘Lotus’ badge it’d be a modern-day classic with genuinely amazing residuals: it’s not as a easy a win for the Mini as one might expected.
Here’s the dilemma: I’m still rather attached to the whole concept. A car with relatively good fuel efficiency and low carbon emissions, that’s neither rubbish on motorways nor, crucially, as dull to drive as watching cabbages grow? Well, pinch me, but I have sampled the future and it isn’t entirely sterile. So… being a good little consumer, to what car do I aspire in oooooh… say eighteen months’ time? Ignoring the most likely occurrence that I just keep the thing and run it into the ground, that is.
Another Roadster isn’t an option – production stops at the end of the year, and they’ve not sold well enough to expect a replacement based on the new Smart due whenever it’s due, should they still go ahead with the whole US rollout thing. Going back to the 2006/7 Mini could work, but unless BMW pull some rabbit out of a hat with the new engine I can’t see it going much above 40mpg except in the diesel version. It’s heavy, see, and that’s a Bad Thing with cars. At least until an SUV hits you, but at that point frankly all bets are off anyway.
But there’s really nothing else like the Smart. Things like the Daihatsu Copen and whatever the open-top Ka is called just aren’t in the same league, and certainly aren’t equivalently practical. And I’ve seen nothing on the horizon that was an even vaguely similar idea – surprising, given the whole ‘trying not to mess up the planet as much as we used to’ vibe towards which many of us stumble.
And then Mazda go and do this, the Sassou. A concept car that looks suspiciously like the sort of thing they might actually build. Small, sporty, hatchback… and clattering along on a one-litre three-cylinder turbo. OK, so the interior is the usual concept-car spaceship nonsense, but apparently the (USB!) key allows you to uplink flight plans and playlists, which is cool as heck and hence almost certainly wouldn’t make the cut if the car headed into production.
Lots of other articles out there. At least one of which mentions a ‘y-type twin-clutch 6-speed powershift transmission that is shifted using paddles on the steering wheel.’ Which is – the same sort of gearbox that serves as the Smart’s achilles heel. Arrrghhhh!