Monday 3rd December 2012


Mid-engined, turbocharged and a whole lot of fun - stop sniggering at the back!

Name: Stephen Millband
Car: Smart Roadster Coupe
Owned since: January 2008
Previously owned: Some boring stuff followed by an Impreza classic wagon, Impreza WRX wagon, Smart Roadster Coupe, Renaultsport Clio 172, Mazda RX-8 PZ. Currently have a V8 MG ZT 260 as my daily driver.

Water ingress a well known issue on Smarts...
Water ingress a well known issue on Smarts...
Why I bought it:
This is my second Smart Roadster Coupe. I bought my first one for a summer of open top motoring, being attracted by its quirkiness combined with a surprising amount of practicality. The car ended up being much more fun and much more of a 'proper' sports car than I expected. Within months of replacing it with a Clio 172 I really missed it and decided I needed another one.

What I wish I'd known:
Once I'd made the decision, there was no stopping me. Perhaps being over confident I impetuously bought a local car with a good discount. There was an obvious leak from the roof but the car was still under warranty and I reckoned from previous experience and discussions on that this was fixable. Pity I didn't spot just how much else was wrong!

Over the next couple of months I estimate it cost Mercedes well over £2,000 in warranty work. This included new roof seals, a new steering wheel (position sensor fault), new tailgate hinges (corroded), new air-con pipe (broken - replaced three times now), removing the carpets and drying them, sealing the front bulkhead ... when you read about the build quality of Smart Roadsters being iffy, believe it - it's all true.

It's also worth saying that the build issues CAN be fixed and you can get a very good car if you buy carefully. Just don't let your heart rule your head like I did

Small car, big scenery and loads of fun
Small car, big scenery and loads of fun
Things I love:
Despite those early issues I still have the car five years and over 50,000 miles later. This car really got under my skin.

Almost immediately I had it remapped to 109hp up from the standard 80hp. The 698cc engines in the Roadster are bullet proof compared to the early 600cc Smart engines and the remap really brings the car to life. It's still not a fast car, but it's quick enough to be a hell of a lot of fun. It positively encourages you drive it absolutely 100 per cent flat out everywhere with the bonus that you can enjoy a completely manic driving experience without it automatically leading to a spell behind bars.

It's not the purest driving experience by any means, however it's very well balanced with enough feedback to be rewarding and enough grip and safety systems in reserve so that even a ham-fisted driver like me won't stick it in a hedge as soon as it rains.

Remap equals Elise-baiting pace
Remap equals Elise-baiting pace
But what I really love about it - and what has made it so difficult to replace - is that it has bags and bags of character. I know it's a real Marmite car and there are a few haters (some of them ex-owners!) but it's the complete opposite of the bland sterility of so many other cars. Surely this is something to be celebrated? It makes wonderful noises, from its 911-lite three-cylinder thrum to the WRC-style chirps and chatter from the turbo. Your bum flies inches from the road. The roof goes up and down in seconds and at any speed so you can enjoy open-air driving on a whim. People come up to you at garages (and at race tracks and at Le Mans) and say nice things about it. And unlike a friend who owned a Boxster you DON'T get abuse shouted at you when cruising with the roof down.

Things I hate:
Hate is a bit strong, but it's annoying that it's almost impossible to change gear smoothly around town. Unlike many I don't think this car needs a manual gearbox - the power band is too narrow and the gear ratios are so close that you hit the redline in third as you reach 60. You'd get a repetitive strain injury if you had to change gear manually. I just wish the paddle shift auto was a little better engineered.

Bringing a knife to gun fight, perhaps
Bringing a knife to gun fight, perhaps
Service costs are a little on the high side especially as most of the rear bodywork has to come off for jobs like changing the six spark plugs. Servicing is best done at a specialist independent as Mercedes dealers are hugely expensive and not really very interested. Economy is excellent with 50+ mpg possible if you show restraint. Consumables like brakes and tyres last forever. I get 30,000 miles out of a set of tyres and over 20,000 miles per set of front brake pads. I'm still on the original clutch despite the remap and track days.

Where I've been:
I've been all over in this little car and every trip is an adventure! It was my daily driver for 30,000 miles before becoming my second car. I've had two Scottish driving holidays where it was brilliant on the twisty single-track roads. I've been to Le Mans three times in it. It carried a gazebo, two tents, chairs, table, sleeping bags, cameras, etc and I could still get the roof down. It's a surprisingly good tourer being stable and comfortable at speed as long as you don't mind the epic wind noise.

Friends have equally eclectic tastes
Friends have equally eclectic tastes
I've done trackdays at Croft and Cadwell Park (where ESP and ABS gave me the confidence to sneak past a few nervous Elise drivers in torrential rain) and a training day on the Harewood Hillclimb course - I can highly recommend this if you want to try something different.

For the last two years I've been competing in Autosolos. Autosolos are timed slaloms around courses marked with cones, tackled mostly in first gear. They're designed for road cars and don't require any special safety kit. Handbrake turns and powerslides on gravelly car parks are huge fun and I've learnt a lot about car control at very little cost and very little risk. I've managed to come second in class on one event, but I still need to work on putting in consistent times...

Last but definitely not least I've had a great time joining a few PH runs around the Yorkshire Dales and the Evo Triangle with an eclectic mix of other cars. So far there has been everything ranging from a Puma to Imprezas, TVRs and a Ferrari Testarossa - even a gorgeous rally prepped Citroen DS. I think I've managed to keep up and not get in the way too much - hopefully the guys will back me up on this!

What next?
I've been looking at S1 Elises for a while now but can't make up my mind. I know an Elise will be a 'better' drive in almost every way, but will it make me grin as much?

Harewood run




Author: Dan Trent
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