Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Wheelwobble wallflowers 1 - smart forfour

This occasional series highlights likable cars that have struggled to get noticed in today's crowded market.

First up is the smart forfour (lower case intentional). Smart announced in April 2006 that it was discontinuing this model after just two years and 100,000 units sold. I have fairly fond memories of the forfour, partly because it was the first car I covered for the Independent's 'Verdict' test almost three years ago.

Here's some background. Smart launched its original tiny two-door model in 1998 and by the early nineties, it was looking to expand its range; one extra model was the smart roadster, which had a similar rear/mid-engined layout to the original but dressed up in a sports car body.

But the big departure from the original smart concept came with the forfour. In terms of its exterior styling, this looked just as funky as the other models, but under the skin, it was a much more conventional affair. Its fairly standard front-wheel drive layout was shared with the Mitsubishi Colt and the two cars were built in the same Dutch factory.

This fact prompted some to complain that the forfour wasn't a 'proper' Smart. Now I'm normally the first to grumble about the diluted pedigrees that widespread part sharing has produced in modern cars but I think that the criticism was unfair in this case. Of course the forfour wasn't as technically adventurous as the other smarts but when it was discontinued, the company was still only a few years old, so there was no entrenched tradition of what constituted a 'proper' smart to be violated. And at least some versions of the forfour did have more smarty features than they were given credit for; the diesels and the cheapest petrol-powered models had characterful three cylinder engines, just like the original; the diesel, in particular had an appealingly fruity sound to it.

An interesting post-script to the forfour story is that around the time it was announced that this model would be discontinued, Smart's partner Mitsubishi introduced the 'i'. In concept, at least, this was precisely the car some of the critics said the forfour should have been; it took a smart-style compact rear/mid-engined mechanical package and used it in a larger four-door, four-seat body.

Mitsubishi brought some 'i's to the UK last year to gauge reaction to the concept, and it does now look as though the car will reach the British market before too long.

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