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First UK drive: the 69bhp Smart ForTwo cabrio auto

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What’s this?

The new soft-top Smart ForTwo auto, which costs a huge £3490 more than the basic hardtop version. Monumental price aside, there is another issue with this car, or rather, this type of car.

Spill…

First, you must buy into the Smart as a tiny, 2.5m-long concept. It’s frowned upon to deploy its main party trick and park it nose-on to the kerb. Best make friends with your traffic warden. It’s fiendishly easy to parallel park, sure, but the pay-off is only two seats, a square wheelbase that makes the ride quite jiggly (hardly ideal for town driving), and it’s tremendously expensive. How difficult is it to park a four-seat, supremely comfy VW Up, exactly?

And then there’s the idea of a convertible city car. That’s an oxymoron. Cities, especially congested megacities like London, where Top Gear lives, suffer from dire air pollution. Oxford Street – five miles or about one hour in traffic from the Top Gear office – has repeatedly been calculated as the smoggiest street on Earth.

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Would you like your city car to wilfully bathe you in fumes? If you wanted to get across a city briskly, have no worries about parking and didn’t mind smoker’s lung, you’d probably cycle. In fairness to the Smart, the same applies to any of the dinky My First Convertible set, but it’s still an odd paradox of an object.

Rant over?

Rant over. In fairness, this latest Smart is the best one ever by several country miles, which is a good start. The cabin just oozes with cheery trinkets and neat design. Having a sliding scale for the heater and a separate tubby pod for the rev counter to live in doesn’t solve any car design conundrums, but it’s different and we like that. The Smart outshines its Renault Twingo stepsister to the point the French car feels dowdy.

It’s a cracking place to spend time, though if you’re tall you have to sit bolt upright, which isn’t so great. What’s more, the cabrio doesn’t suffer from the usual soft-top drawback of battletank visibility. Not compared to the hardtop, anyway. It shares the trademark safety cell (that’s the contrast colour C-shape you can see from the outside), so your Smart has a fairly chunky over-pillar blind spot, canvas roof or not.

If you really hate being able to see out the back, simply prod the switch to retract the canvas roof; a 12-second operation doable whether you’re stationary or at any speed up to the 96mph v-max. Removing the roof slats for the proper al fresco experience means getting out and manhandling the structure into the letterbox of a boot, and is a hassle you’re unlikely to bother with that often. The ultra-sunroof mode is a more convenient compromise.

How’s life with the roof down?

Fairly agreeable, actually. You’re better off living without rear visibility and pulling the roof all the way down to a crumpled heap on the boot, rather than leaving the back window in place.

There, it acts as a sort of net for the wind-rush over the top of the car and flutters about loudly at about 30mph.

Any fun to be had driving it?

This isn’t a car that really does ‘handling’, but you’d have to have a heart of stone – a really boring sort, like granite – and tepid water in your veins not to be the least bit charmed by this cheery little runaround. It’s an infectiously likeable car, albeit one that’s flawed in quite a few ways.

The fidgety, unsettled ride and inconsistent steering speed is common to all Smarts. Fitted to our test car is a combination of a 69bhp, 1.0-litre three-pot engine and a six-speed automatic gearbox. You can have a turbo version of this engine with, wait for it, 89bhp, but the hilariously out-of-sorts dual-clutch auto is compulsory for now. There’ll be a manual soon. It’ll be £995 cheaper to buy. Wait for it.

With so little torque the motor is seriously slow – its 15.5-second 0-62mph time means it currently tops the TG leaderboard of slowest cabrios on sale today.

Worse, even in town it’s not especially zesty. The auto gearbox is erm, not the cleverest, especially from getaway when the stop-start is active. No paddles on the steering wheel either, but you do get a Sport mode switch. This changes the mapping from the default Eco setting, but in reality this simply upsets the transmission’s mood from ‘Flustered’ to ‘PANIC’.

All told, if you totally buy into the Smart concept and you can’t live without the cabrio vibes, then you might as well spend the extra £595 and have the turbo. It amusingly exposes how the current eco-tests favour forced induction engines for one thing, offering a claimed 67.3mpg and 97g/km to the non-turbo’s 65.7mpg and 99g/km. Still, lovably hamstrung as the little Smart is, we’d probably prefer to go the whole hog and drive a proper grown-up’s car instead.

What do you think?

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