There are a lot of cars that make sense here in the US. The Smart BRABUS Roadster? Well, it is definitely not one of them. Even without considering the process of federalization to make it legal, it looks like a car that should have never sold here. But there is a question that begs to be answered. Do I wish they did?
The Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe were based on the Smart ForTwo by Mercedes Benz, a car that was not available in the United States until its second generation. Smart wanted a pure sports car, so the engineers stretched the City Car nearly three feet, modified the suspension and kept the engine right where it was in the rear . The car you see here is a Smart BRABUS Roadster Coupe RCR101. Out of the 43,091 Smart Roadsters built, only 11 were built as the left hand drive BRABUS tuned RCR 101 (which means Roadster Coupe Racing Edition). This edition was modeled after the V6 Biturbo prototypes released by Mercedes and Smart in 2003. It’s an extremely rare car and I was lucky enough to have it for a weekend.
(The Lane Motor Museum was generous enough to let me use their Smart BRABUS Roadster. If you are ever in Nashville, please visit them and give them your money. They deserve it and you will absolutely not be disappointed.)
Throughout my weekend, I asked a lot of people what they thought of the car. Of course most people commented on how small it was, but the word I heard that described the looks of the car the best was “polarizing”. The side profile is almost perfect. Both aggressive and proportionally attractive. The “bug eyes” out front and non-descript rear lay in stark contrast to the sharp silver blade and the great looking 17” wheels.
The first afternoon I spent wondering why so many people who have driven the RCR 101 at the Lane have raved about this car. Just getting into the car is a chore. The seat is low, the roof is low, and the steering wheel does not move. At all. Swinging yourself into the car is an art only learned by practice and a few solid bumps to the temple. Once in the car, the seat is at least the right shape and will actually adjust back and forth, but there is a distinct lack of padding and lumbar support. It’s present, but not great.
The overall interior feel is… well… it’s still a Smart. The RCR edition provides red stitching diamond tuck in the seat and random alcantara spread through the cockpit. Unfortunately, it does not replace the cheap plastic looking steering wheel and dash though. The steering wheel rim itself is actually comfortable and the gauges were very easy to read as they are on pods putting them just below your line of sight.
Driving the car, it actually feels much bigger than you would think. The only time the size is really noticeable is when a vehicle is directly in front, or behind you at a light. Other than that, perhaps the bright red paint must have helped announce my presence, because there was little problem with people merging into my lane or seemingly not knowing I was there. It would definitely behoove you to drive it like a motorcycle as it is unlikely that you’ll win in any accident situation. The only time I noticed how low I sat as a driver, was getting into my LS400 immediately after turning it in. The wind noise is a bit excessive as a result of the cloth top and cheaper build quality of the plastic panels. My luxury sedan had never felt more like a tank in both of comfort and because of its generously high driving position.
The top operation is actually quite wonderful. By simply pressing a button on the dash, the top is lowered automatically. After the top is stored behind your head, you can pull the two bars above each door out with a handle and have an entire Targa style roof. With the roof out, the car no longer feels as dark. It also manages to remove the blind spots produced by a low car and above-average-height-driver.
The coupe, with the glass hatchback lid, provides much needed storage for fun little day trips. We visited a friend’s house and were able to fit a small Orca cooler in the back. We did have to put it on it’s side, but it fit nonetheless. For a day in the park with a picnic basket, some lawn chairs and a camera you don’t need anymore space. I never accessed the frunk(or front trunk for the uninitiated), but it is designed to hold the two plastic bars above each door and we had no need for that much room.
The steering is wonderfully precise. Perhaps because there is no power steering. It is just a wheel directly connecting you to the tires. You can feel everything the road offers. It inspires great confidence when going around corners and lift-off oversteer became increasingly apparent. When putting around town, due to the rear engined layout and amazingly lithe 1700 lb. curb weight, the wheel can be turned with one finger even while stopped.
The engine is very interesting; and in my opinion, could be amazing. That is if the semi-automatic transmission did not get in the way. But more on that later. The 3 cylinder, 0.7L turbocharged engine is absolutely hysterical. The boost goes up to 1.5 bar (over 20 psi) in no time and, when in the correct gear, has way much more grunt then just 101 horsepower has any right to have. With a 0-60 of 9.5 seconds, speeding is absolutely possible in this car, but it does happen much slower than it feels. The BRABUS exhaust sounds exceptionally mean. Many people commented on how loud it was for such a small car. The engine as a whole is reminiscent of the Fiat 500 Abarth, which is a good thing.
Now the single biggest issue with this car… the transmission. It is a 6 speed semi-automatic transmission. This means the car has a manual transmission, but is driven more like an automatic as the clutch is operated by an electronic servo and it has sequential gear range. That means the setup has all the downsides of a manual including slow shifts, rolling back on hills, and awful manners in traffic. Unfortunately it has none of the perks like easily being able to tell the car exactly what gear you want like a true manual.
In traffic, the car is really quite horrible. The combo of an engine that wants to constantly rev and the transmission that never seems to be in the right gear makes commuting painful. There is an exception though. Find the right back road with nobody to slow you down, and the car really wants to move. When the engine and transmission are finally in sync it feels like a proper sports car. The biggest upside is you can drive this car very quickly, while not driving all that fast.
The car definitely garners a lot of attention as well. I mentioned this in the Fisker article, but it is both fun and a nuisance. I drove the Roadster to our local German Cars and Coffee at the Bavarian Bierhaus in Nashville. People went nuts over the car. In a sea of Porsche 911s, half million dollars Mercedes, Audi RS cars, and BMW M series vehicles, the Smart BRABUS sat below everything yet still attracted the most attention. Later that day a Fiat 500 owner said he followed me several blocks to ask what it was, and when I walked back out there was a group of people standing around it… in a parking lot.
On Sunday, I was in a rush so I could get the car back to the museum before the thunderstorm dumped rain on us. I still got stopped three times in a parking lot by people who were so confused as to what it was I had to repeat myself. Here is one actual interaction:
“What kind of car is that?”
“It’s a Smart Car Brabus Roadster. They never sold these the US”
“What is it?
“It’s a Smart car”
*I shrug shoulders and continue to load wares*
Now this was the minority as most people who asked actually cared enough about cars to understand it was a Smart car and were genuinely interested in learning more about it. I was more than happy to explain when possible.
The final verdict: Would I buy this car for everyday use? Absolutely not. It makes no sense in 90% of the United States. In cities it the transmission too dim witted and constant ingress and egress is hard. The engine also is also so small it had to be slightly revved at stop lights for the AC to continue to work. In the suburbs and on longer interstate drives it wants to remain at 4000 RPMs at all times. But as a fourth car or toy? This car was absolutely perfect. The Roadster lives for few hours a weekend where the combination of perfect weather, roads, all align to have a wonderful drive.