Ceci N’est Pas Une Sportscar

p4nsy_4c4fe064ee064-lightboxI had a Skyline which was thought to be a Ford Mustang by many of those middle-aged chaps who feel the need to strike up unnecessary conversation at petrol stations. I had an Evo 6 which was often confused for a Cavalier with a bad body kit, although that was at least understandable. But it’s the Smart Roadster which has delivered my favourite case of mistaken identity, just a couple of weeks ago.

As I returned to my car one day, two young boys from the lower social orders were having a gander, trying to work out what it was. One went round the back. He was evidently not the most literate of youths, bless him, so he started trying to read the letters off the badge one at a time but couldn’t quite do it… so he gets S, M, R, A, T. And, in a wonderful moment as dyslexia and limited car knowledge collided, he reached the only conclusion possible:

“It’s a Maserati!”

I know it’s wrong to mock the afflicted but yes, I did laugh. A lot. Made me glad I didn’t de-badge the boot after all.

And really, I guess that moment kind of sums up the first thousand miles: It’s been a laugh. From the predictable joshing with work colleagues about when I can fit them in for a cut and blow dry, to the joy of zipping round B-road corners without lifting off; from the delight of feeling a mere 698cc haul you up a hill in 6th without breaking a sweat, to the entertainment of driving through crowded city streets at pedestrian-crotch level; this car’s entire raison d’etre is fun. No, scratch that. It’s guilt-free fun. Cheap fun. Not speed, not race-winning, not practicality and certainly not reliability or build quality. Just squeezing maximum driving enjoyment out of minimal cost.

And as a result, it’s been nothing short of a revelation in de-stressing my commute. In the last month, I have not once made a hand gesture indicating that an elephant-racing lorryist frequently indulges in the act of self-abuse. I have not once directed a stream of bile and invective, liberally laced with the most military of language, at mongo Gerry in his white-line crossing white van. And my overactive imagination has not once embarked upon a scarily-vivid fantasy involving a roadside assault on a grey-haired Hyundai driver, culminating in a glorious vision of my beating him unconscious with his own Marks and Spencer loafers. Honestly, this car has changed my life. I now arrive home each day with a relaxed grin, where once there was an apoplectic, twitching rictus of pure rage…

I’m not entirely sure why this is. I think it’s the unique package of the car as a whole, rather than any one feature. Get caught behind slower traffic and the gearbox means you can relax without clutch-faffery whilst smugly enjoying the knowledge that you’re getting 55+mpg. If an overtaking opportunity arises, a couple of paddle-blips will give you enough poke to nip past and, being so small and utterly unthreatening, you can avoid attracting the usual aggression and main-beam opprobrium from those you pass.

When the road opens up, you don’t need to do licence-endangering speeds to get your kicks, so there’s no need to be constantly scanning for hedge-hidden policemen or layby-lurking Talivan. And the comically low centre of gravity means that almost any corner, at pretty much any speed, can make you laugh out loud and forget completely the dithering slowtard in front or the rump-riding fastard behind. In short, you’re too busy smiling to get stressed.

It has to be said that the engine is a gem. Perhaps in isolation it would be less impressive. But knowing that it’s such a cubically-challenged, cylindrically-deficient, low-output thing makes it all the more entertaining when it pulls so cleanly from low down and charges between 5-6000rpm like it’s possessed. OK, so it’s not the most aurally-arousing of powerplants. It sounds like a lawnmower with a Peco Big Bore at low revs and makes a noise like a sewing machine having a hernia when you give it some beans. It emphatically does not sound like half-a-911 as some have suggested, unless your 911 is in urgent need of an engine rebuild. But, honestly, that really doesn’t matter. It’s still a fabulous thing.

The optional steering wheel paddle-change also adds immeasurably to the fun. Seriously, do not buy a Roadster without this option. Not having to take your hands off the wheel makes every journey feel like Test Drive Unlimited with a Logitech G25, but with the best graphics and force-feedback ever. The gearbox itself is a controversial device, having acquired a reputation for somewhat lethargic changes. But I don’t think it’s that bad at all. No, it doesn’t do DSG-seamless. No, it won’t give you a Ferrari-quick smash between gears. But it doesn’t have some kind of transmission ME either, like some contemporary press reviews would suggest.

Is it all perfect then? Well, of course I would have preferred a Roadster-Coupé if funds had allowed. That glasshouse on the back makes the Coupé inexplicably but indubitably more manly than my Roadster could ever be. Sure, my all-black colour scheme and macho big wheels butch it up, but only in a yestergay sort of way. I would also ideally have chosen one with a manual hard top as shiny plastic looks a lot better than a bit of cloth. And whilst the electric soft top can be opened on the move, to get the full effect you need to manually remove and stow the roof bars as well, which is only what you would have had to do with a hard top.

Once the roof’s off and the windows are down, the design does a remarkably good job of shielding you from buffeting. But I still don’t really get the whole open-top motoring thing. Driving through town it just means you get fag butts flicked at you and can overhear pedestrians’ comments casting aspersions on your orientation. Driving on the motorway you’re too busy being deafened by lorries to enjoy the wind in your hairpiece. And on a lovely, winding Suffolk country road on a warm summer’s evening you simply find that your nose picks up every exquisite nuance of whatever fertiliser the local inbreds have been spreading on the fields. Sorry, but roof-down appeal remains a mystery to me.

Whilst we’re on the subject of imperfections, no review of a Roadster could be complete without some mention of its comically bad construction and, in places, freakishly poor design. Like, that to access the spark plugs you have to unbolt, de-rivet and remove the whole rear end of the car. Or that the aircon pipes are rigid and therefore tend to, well, snap off when the engine moves about too much. Or that the roof and door ‘seals’ are apparently designed to channel water into the car. Or (my favourite) that the far-from-water-tight wiper tray which sits under a grille completely open to the elements, is placed so that it drips rainwater directly onto the most sensitive electronic device in the whole car…

However, my own example is actually pretty watertight. The wiper tray’s sealed. The aircon works. And the fact that the interior has been thrown together by an inebriated, visually-challenged Frenchman actually has some benefits – I’ve been able to route my phone holder’s power supply neatly behind the dash just by pulling bits of trim off by hand, feeding the cable behind and then shoving them back on.

So look. It’s still the honeymoon period, sure, but I really do love this car. How long that affection continues may depend on how well my luck holds up in the reliability roulette. It’s let me down once so far, thanks to a faulty fuel gauge sender showing a full tank when it was in fact empty. So empty that I ground to a halt on my very first journey to work. I’ve forgiven it that one, but I suspect that a few mid-winter roadside recoveries will take the shine off things. Still, for the moment, as a package, it does exactly what I wanted it to do. However, let’s be clear – my needs are almost certainly not the same as yours. Because there’s a fair chance you’re looking at a Roadster and thinking that it looks like a funky little sports car, yes? Ideal for a bit of weekend fun, right? And if that’s the case, I actually think that you’re in danger of real disappointment…

Eh? I’ve just waxed lyrical about how much I love driving it, so what am I on about now? Well, in the context of a daily driver it’s utterly fantastic. But if it’s an unadulterated sports car you’re seeking then you’ll be digging a bit deeper into the car’s talents. And when you do, I suspect you might find too many compromises that will start to annoy. The slightly artificial steering feel; the surfeit of grip and concomitant snappiness of any tail-out action; the nannying automated gear changes and, of course, the lack of outright pace. It’s no Elise, that’s for sure. Not even an MX-5. In fact, let’s just be brutally frank here – the Roadster is not a sports car. Really, it’s not. Come on, I mean 0-60 in nearly 11 seconds? It’s a Smart ForTwo in a fancy frock.

Harsh? Maybe. But to me it makes so much more sense to forget ‘sports car’ and think of the Roadster as something entirely different: The best-handling, most entertaining, low-cost commuting car that you could ever hope for. Because then it’s pure gold. What this car absolutely excels at is bringing a bit of fun into what would otherwise be a joyless journey whilst saving you money. And that’s money which you could put towards a real weekend toy. Like an Elise. Or an MX5. Or even… a Maserati.

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Jay Kellett