x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Carlsson smart is small but big on ideas

Two of our writers, Nick Hall and Michael Taylor, look at two companies, Carlsson and Brabus, that are attempting to make the smart car smarter.

The Carlsson smart is in the same price bracket as a Porsche Boxster or a BMW 3 Series.
The Carlsson smart is in the same price bracket as a Porsche Boxster or a BMW 3 Series.

The smart ForTwo was a brilliant innovation. It's a modern day Mini, a car designed solely for the city that is cheap and can zip through traffic like a motorbike. That unique skill means it has crossed the class divide and has attracted a legion of wealthy buyers who love the car's quirky looks and the fact they can park outside their luxury city centre apartment block. It is a car with almost no competition at any price.

But even though they love the basic concept, the rich need to stand out from the crowd. A standard smart just isn't good enough. That has brought the tuning firms out in force to create ever more extravagant, exclusive and expensive smart variants. This one, from Mercedes tuner Carlsson, may just have taken the bar to an irrational level. Because this may have started out as a smart ForTwo Cabrio, which costs about ?15,000 (Dh72,000) in Germany, but by the time Carlsson finished with this particular car the list price had swollen to a frightening ?30,000 (Dh144,245). And if you want them to, they have an options list that can take the price to ?45,000 (Dh216,473) - more than three times the price of the original car.

Better yet, this is technically an optional extra for the C25 Super GT that Carlsson recently launched. That machine costs ?430,000 (Dh2 million), has a 750bhp engine and will leave a Lamborghini for dead in a straight line. But Carlsson argues that you don't need all that power all of the time, and are trying to shift a matching smart with each unit sold. It's a brave move, I wish them luck and even the basic concept should bring a smile to anyone's face. It's either genius or brazen audacity: I'm still not sure.

Is the car worth its astronomical price? Objectively no, it just can't be. This is Porsche Boxster and BMW 3 Series money for a car that is really only useful within the city walls. But then, objectively speaking, haute couture isn't worth the money either and the top-end fashion stores are doing just fine. This might be a world away from a pair of designer jeans in practice, but the principle is the same. It is paying incredulous money for a car that dynamically does not offer much more than the standard car, but certainly looks a world apart.

Carlsson has, at least, created a whole new look for the smart. There's a beefier front spoiler that can come with LED daytime running lights to ape the larger Mercedes. Then there's a rear skirt, fuel filler cap and the big 1/11 wheels that fill the arches and improve the look no end. Inside there is a pair of sports seats that are covered in the highest grade Napa leather and Alcantara containing embroidered logos.

It's a big step up for the smart as the materials on the interior were always functional and basic, rather than prestigious, and it's easy to see how customers used to the more opulent surroundings of an S Class or Cayenne might want to upgrade their smart to a similar standard of fit and finish. Or as close as they can get. It's still a smart, when all said and done, and all the thick carpets and quilted seats in the world can't change that. It would take a complete dashboard change and the removal of the plasticy gearstick arrangement to bring the smart totally in to line with Carlsson's more opulent products.

It's a bizarre dichotomy of leather that is better than anything most of us have at home and the kind of plastics that belong in a Korean supermini. The German firm could have covered the whole thing in Alcantara, but settled for various accent touches instead, colour coded inserts that almost snap into the car like the covers for old school Swatch watches. Carlsson won't sell too many complete cars. It will make money from these snap-in accessories that could, technically, be changed like an outfit. When the owner gets bored the colour scheme can change. Carlsson could even redo the exterior as it is a mixture of paint and foil wrap.

All this is about the looks, though, and Carlsson is a tuning firm that has worked on more than just the cosmetic side. The car now comes with 101bhp thanks to a new ECU and sports exhaust, which is hardly earth shattering, but in an 800kg car only marginally larger than a rollerskate, that is enough to make things entertaining on the city streets. It sounds like an absolute monster, too, thanks to a near race exhaust, and realistically speaking it's too loud. It sounds like a high-powered Porsche is approaching until this dinky creation rounds the bend - and everybody starts to laugh. Carlsson has fitted lightweight 16 inch front and 17 inch rear wheels to the smart and lowering springs drop the ride height by 15mm at the front and 35mm at the rear. That's a help when it comes to cornering and in the confines of Hockenheim it gives the C25 Edition a surreal level of grip for such a high-sided, short machine. The 7 inch-wide Hankook performance tyres help the cause here and at city speeds this is a brilliantly entertaining car. It won't slide through bends but it will zip through the smallest gap with total confidence. Ijust have to keep pace with the hateful five-speed semi automatic that always feels one step behind the car. The car hits 100kph in just under 10 seconds and it's still not fast in the traditional sense of the world, but it is faster. Later, though, we head out on to the open road and straight out of the smart's comfort zone. Beyond 80kph the Carlsson C25 Edition shows the standard smart responses, pogoing gently and refusing to settle on the surface. And at its top end speed, around the 153kph mark, it lurches over the road like a drunken sailor as the suspension struggles to cope and the wind slams into the high sides in turn and threatens to turn the whole car. It's fun, for all the wrong reasons. On the motorway, then, the C25 Edition smart is still a horrible experience, but this car doesn't belong there. That's a job for the bigger C25. This is a car for the opulent streets of London, Paris, Monaco, Tokyo, LA and Dubai. And though the price is borderline scandalous, there are those who will pay it to stand out from the crowd. It's a limited market, that's for sure, but it's just crazy enough to work.

The German Benz tuner Brabus has made some of the wackiest, fastest, most mental machines ever to semi-officially wear the three-pointed star. Up in the German Ruhr Valley Brabus has built a reputation around high horsepower and, less-well known, individual trimming. While it'll make a fortune supplying the custom interiors for the facelifted smart range, it's also banging out a faster version of the stock machine, the Brabus smart car. The Brabus smart is mild to look at - fresh alloys, new exhaust tips and LED running lights are the most obvious fiddles - but there's also more horsepower and lower emissions. The urge from the 1.0-litre turbo-charged, three-cylinder engine has crept from 97bhp to 101, but that seems like just about the minimum it had to lift by to have any new-model credibility. It's a city car, so the emissions have dropped from 124 grams of CO2/km to 119. There are bigger wheels and tyres, a new spring and damper package, stronger anchors and, inside, it gets satnav, aluminium handbrake grips, plus paddle shifters. With its squat wheelbase and exaggerated rear track, its problem is utilising all the grip and drive from the rear-engined, rear-drive machinery without its occupants feeling like all the mid-corner jiggling will tip them into the pedestrians. And the Brabus version doesn't fix that problem. Even in a straight line, you'd never call the Brabus comfortable. And you wouldn't call it composed, either. None of the smarts fit that bill, but you'd have hoped with their experience of making unwilling machinery accept unwanted horsepower that Brabus might have made it all work. But the ride is more jitterbug than ever, which reduces your confidence in cornering because the high body height of the driver means every lateral movement is accentuated. And while it's quicker, at 8.9 seconds to 100kph, it's still not going to tear your eyebrows off. That's at their peril, because a well-driven Brabus smart might easily get the jump on them from the lights, with the little clutch slipping crazily as the electronics of the gearbox sort out your launch. There's low-end torque to spare here and it doesn't lose anything of its linear delivery at higher revs, either. They've done a top job of the little engine and it snorts and whistles as the turbo spins harder than they're ever allowed to in the stock machines. That fun all comes to a stop at the first gear-shift, though, because Brabus hasn't been able to cure the stock smart's Achilles heel - its power-sapping, pregnant-pause gearbox. You just get the little thing warbling up a treat and you're starting to muster up the Woo Hoos and then you pull a shift paddle and? And nothing? And then, just when you've given up, it finally goes again. It happens in every gear change in the box. It's better coming down the cogs, with a little blip thrown in for good measure that the Brabus's more-open exhaust embiggens, but the downshift is the easy one to get right. Inside, though, it's hard to argue with the Brabus charm. The materials barely want against Benz-based offerings. The smart's interior is still classy and contemporary and practical, but still stylish. And at approximately Dh72,000 it is about half the cost of the Carlsson smart. The biggest problem for the Brabus smart might (in part) be the gearbox, but it's mostly the chassis and suspension work that has fallen well behind rivals like Toyota's iQ. It's missed a golden opportunity to massage the underpinnings to give you less of a massage, if you like. BMW has given us M3s that ride better than the thinly-rubbered standard 3-Series coupes. If Brabus had done this instead of sports suspension for the blind, we may have had a smart for all seasons. Instead, it's another smart might-have-been. Thus the torque diesel version is the best smart you can buy. And for less cash.