Smart Roadster – They may not have captured our hearts when new, but with the unpleasantries of depreciation behind them these underrated cars now warrant a closer look.
For many years, sportscar manufacturers have tried to emulate the nippy fun factor of such classics as the MG B, Triumph Spitfire and Healey Sprite. The results have been a mixed bag, with the delights of the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota MR2 often countered by such failures as the Daihatsu Copen.
Smart’s 2004 crack at the compact sportscar, the Roadster and Roadster-Coupé, was both distinctive and at times divisive. Underpinned by a stretched version of the Smart ForTwo’s platform, the Roadster was offered in flat rear-decked standard and glasshouse-framed coupé body shapes; both with the option of removable targa panel or folding canvas roofs. Power was provided by a 0,9-litre inline-three turbopetrol that sent 60 kW and 110 N.m to the rear wheels via a six-speed automated manual ‘box. While the tardy transmission and modest power outputs meant the Roadster would never set the tarmac alight (it cracked 0-100 km/h in 13,40 seconds on the way to its 176 km/h top speed in our 2004 road test), its lightweight, nimble chassis and attention-grabbing looks lent it a certain left-field charm. Now, with rising fuel prices and the crossovers’ seemingly unchecked homogenisation of the automotive landscape, the Roadster has begun to make an affordable case for itself as a fun and distinctive departure from the motoring norm.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR
In terms of build quality and reliability, the Smart Roadster stands up to its premium placement. Yet, as with any car nearing the 20-year-old mark, it pays to be mindful of some things. Leaks have been known to affect models with a canvas roof, so look for water stains on the upholstery and be wary of any damp odours you detect in the cabin.
The engine requires regular oil changes (every 10 000 km) and benefits from new spark plugs every 40 000 to 50 000 km. It’s worth bearing in mind that the six spark plugs are positioned in two separate banks in the engine bay; access to the lower set often necessitates removing the rear bumper. Some folks forget about this “hidden” set and change only the three visible spark plugs. Be sure to check all of them to ensure they’ve been changed at the same time. Exhaust smoke could point to turbo problems such as perished bearings or turbine shaft oil seals. On the test drive, take the car up to about 110 km/h in top gear and then floor the throttle. If there’s a pulsing sensation through the drivetrain, it could suggest a cracked manifold, or possibly that the turbo is failing.
As a drivers’ car, the Smart Roadster will have been enjoyed previously; listen for any noises when turning the steering from lock to lock and ensure tyre wear is even. Seized brake adjusters have been reported on older and less well-maintained examples.
The Smart Roadster and Roadster-Coupé were niche products and had relatively short market runs in South Africa. Nevertheless, a search through the classifieds reveals a reasonable selection of Roadsters; the Roadster-Coupé being less common. Prices start at around R65 000 for an early model (2004) to R100 000 for a well-cared-for late-model (2006) Roadster-Coupé. Owing to its niche status, often as a weekend toy, mileages tend to be modest for the year but that doesn’t mean servicing and maintenance should be skimped on … hold out for examples with a traceable service history.
Given its relative paucity of punch, it’s little surprise the Roadster was subjected to a number of performance-boosting upgrades in its time. German tuner Brabus tweaked the engine to 74 kW for use in a limited-edition run of cars, but the firm’s ultimate Smart project was the biturbo V6 prototype. Essentially merging two of the standard car’s inline-three turbopetrol engines, the V6 produced 160 kW and could crack 0-100 km/h in around five seconds. The V6 was not publicly available, with just 10 examples built as circuit taxis.
Power: 60 kW @ 5 200 r/min
Torque: 110 N.m @ 2 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 13,46 seconds
Top speed: 176 km/h
Fuel index: 5,20 L/100 km
Prices: R65 000 to R100 000
CAR test: February 2004 (Roadster)