A light, small, stylish, efficient sports car sounds just the thing for 2022 – Smart was there 20 years ago

By Cam Tait / Wednesday, 9 November 2022 / Loading comments

Who’d have thought that Smart, in its early days as an upstart maker of city runabouts, would fire out an innovative and efficient sports car? Admittedly, frugality doesn’t necessarily make a two-seat sports car – designed purely for driving thrills – all that desirable. Well, for PHers at least. But the Smart Roadster remains a guilty pleasure for many of us, partly because it was championed by Gordon Murray – who still owns one to this day.

And there’s a very good reason why it captured the heart of the legendary car designer: it was incredibly lightweight. The drop-top version of the Roadster weighed in at just 790kg, or 845kg for the Coupe, making it lighter than the Series 2 Lotus Elise and the third generation Toyota MR2. So while it might seem underpowered with its turbocharged 698cc three-pot developing just 82hp, its ultra-lightweight nature resulted in a power-to-weight ratio of 118hp per tonne. Which still isn’t all that much, but the Roadster was all about maintaining momentum on a twisty country lane; in Britain, that’s quite good fun.

Naturally, some customers wanted a bit more poke, so Smart called upon Brabus, famed for extra crazy amounts of power from Mercedes’ AMG models, to soup up the humble Roadster. The engine remained the same as the stock car, with power rising to 101hp courtesy of a new twin outlet sports exhaust system, a Brabus turbocharger and upgraded cooling. Torque also increased from 81lb ft to 96lb ft, and it could be accessed earlier in the rev range at 2,500rpm. Acceleration was hardly blistering at 9.8 seconds to 62mph, with even the most lukewarm of hatches of the era giving it a run for its money, but, again, it was a healthy improvement over the boggo Roadster. Sounded better, too.

The Roadster received a major visual overhaul as well, giving the two-seater a, er, smarter look. The plastic bumpers on the standard car were switched to body coloured trim, a small splitter installed at the front, side skirts and a tweaked rear bumper to accommodate the new twin exhaust layout. There’s the obligatory sports suspension set-up, which, coupled with the switch to 17-inch Monoblock wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport tyres, turned Roadster into a far more focused offering.

However, it did come at a cost. The ride quality was, to put it lightly, on the firm side, giving your spine a good kicking when if you fail to dodge a pothole. The Brabus model didn’t rectify one of the Roadster’s biggest flaws, either, which is the gearbox. It’s a six-speed automated manual that, on the regular car, shifts between gears so slowly it deserves its own unit of time. True, it was reworked on the Brabus, improving shift times by about 30 per cent, but it’ll be nowhere near as snappy as a proper manual box that it so richly deserved.

Yet, for the die-hard Roadster user, that’s all part of the charm, which it has in the bucketload. And though well on its way to cult classic status, Roadster values – even the Brabuses – haven’t gone completely mad. Yet. Probably because they weren’t all that expensive to begin with, but it does mean you can pick up a 44,000-mile example like this one for £8,495. Plus, this car’s just had a new set of Falken tyres slapped on to those massive rims, so it’s ready for some light sideways action. If the mid-2000s stability control doesn’t get in the way, that is…


SPECIFICATION | SMART ROADSTER BRABUS

Engine: 698cc three-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed automated manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],250rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],500rpm
MPG: N/A
CO2: N/A
Year registered: 2004
Recorded mileage: 44,000
Price new: £9,220
Yours for: £8,495

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