Used car buying guide: Smart Roadster

1 year, 10 months ago - 6 September 2022, autocar
Used car buying guide: Smart Roadster
The Smart Roadster is small in size and price but big on fun

There are those for whom the ideal sports car will always have its engine amidships, whether it be a Lamborghini Miura or a Ferrari 296 GTB, a Fiat X1/9 or a Porsche Boxster S. Such sensual gratification, they will say, such responses, and oh, all that increased traction: what fun!

But be wary and remember that there are circumstances in which such a layout can, dynamically, catch out the inexperienced. It can also make it harder to see out of, increasing the likelihood of hitting something else, whether at high speed or low. If you’re entertaining a mid-engined car, then, better to keep it small and cheap and easily repairable, lest your enthusiasm outranks your ability. 

Step forward the Smart Roadster, a car so small you could easily use it on a Monopoly board. At just 3.4m long and weighing less than 800kg, it’s pushed along reasonably comfortably by a weeny, mid-mounted 80bhp 698cc turbocharged triple. Its bolt-on body panels are plastic and its styling, with its extravagantly flared wheel arches, is just far enough on the right side of pug-ugly to be immensely likeable. Indeed, the years have been kind. It still looks distinctly eye-catching today.

It’s still beloved by a coterie of enthusiasts and for good reason. It may have only a modest power output, and it may have a dimwitted, automated manual, six-speed gearbox, complete in some with (optional-from-new) paddle shifters, but its fun factor is sky-high.

In fact, the experience of driving the thing actually overrides the obvious shortcomings inherent in the car’s underpinnings: its steering is too slow and its handling can be a little wayward, after all, but if it’s good enough for Gordon Murray, it’s good enough for us. (The creator of the McLaren F1 chose to use one as his daily driver for many years.) 

Launched in 2002, it came in two versions, the Roadster and the Roadster Coupé. The Coupé had twin removable roof panels and a glassed-in rear end, while the Roadster came with an electrically powered soft-top and had a flatter rear deck. Both cars were otherwise identical and got MacPherson struts at the front and a de Dion rear axle. The brakes were discs at the front and drums at the rear.

The good news is that long-term problems are few. Mostly, they leak. Water can make its way in through the roof’s pillars and seals and can get into the electrics, which can be an expensive fix. Worry not, though: there are plenty of specialists who will come up with a solution, although the general parts supply is not as plentiful as it once was. 

So it’s fun, but high prices, reports of those leaks and electrical problems and the subsequent warranty claims led to poor sales when the car was new and put paid to it after just four years in production. Buy one now, though, and you can at least in truth tell your friends that you’ve bought an ultra-rare, Mercedes-sourced, mid-engined sports car with a reasonably healthy power-to-weight ratio. Put like that, it does indeed sound like the ideal sports car.

What we said then

16 September 2003: “Star of the show is the wonderful turbo triple. It revs freely, spinning away like a tiny V6, accompanied by an addictive flutter from the wastegate. Through corners, the Smart grips well. The electrically assisted power steering lacks feedback, but it darts into corners and always feels fun. The lethargy of the six-speed sequential transmission irks, yet you soon learn to adapt your driving style. Although flawed, you can’t fault the Smart for fulfilling its brief simply by being so damn fun and cheeky.

An expert's view

Mark Bloomfield, Fudge Smart: “Smart Roadsters have been a part of my life for many years, and I’ve owned more than I care to remember. They’re quite tough and great fun to drive, but if you’re thinking of buying one, you need to be able to park it where it won’t get wet. Otherwise, sooner or later water will get into the car and become a problem. I’d value mechanical over cosmetic condition every time, especially now they’re getting on a bit. Look out for the rare but expensive RCR model with 90bhp. Only 50 were made, but what a hoot.

Buyer beware

Engine: Oil changes should be every 7000 miles ideally. The B service requires the replacement of all six spark plugs, but often only three are changed. Bore wear isn’t unknown. Sundry misfires could be due to the coil packs, perished HT insulators or a holed exhaust valve. Check for smoke, which could suggest turbine shaft oil seals or bearings have failed. 

Transmission: Clutches can be problematic. Many last more than 100,000 miles but around 60,000 is more realistic.

Steering, brakes and suspension: Check the rear drum brakes have been serviced. Listen for clunks when turning. Ensure that all four tyres match. It’s a MacPherson strut arrangement up front and wishbones at the back, and they don’t generally yield problems. The 17in alloy wheels on Brabus cars can bring a lumpy ride in town. Eibach springs are available to drop the ride height by 25mm.

Body: The grey powder-coated Tridion cell resists corrosion, but black-painted ones show signs of it, despite being galvanised. Check the lacquer condition on the plastic body panels.

Leaks: On both models, water can enter via the rear left-hand corner of the roof, the top of the A-pillar where three seals meet, the windscreen scuttle and, most seriously, the bulkhead, where it runs down the wiring loom into the body control module.

Interior: Check the dashboard LEDs illuminate and the air-con works (its compressor hoses perish easily.) Ensure that the power hood works and the official tyre repair kit is present.

Also worth knowing

The original-spec 15in wheels and tyres are best. Don’t be hung up on a Brabus version: they’re more powerful but cost more and come with a lower ride height and bigger wheels. Do get a Roadster with the optional shift paddles, though. 

This car is extremely frugal. The basic model will give you 55mpg and the Brabus just 2mpg less. Insurance starts in group 10 and the Brabus is in group 14. The lower-specification model is the Light and is marginally cheaper to run, but you’re talking about pennies rather than pounds.

The Brabus-tuned version comes with leather trim and a bodykit. This model was launched in 2004, and with the extra upgrade, you get a top speed of 119mph – and it will take you to 60mph in 9.5sec.

It’s a light car with a rigid chassis, but anything involved in a serious shunt could present problems later on. Steer clear of anything that has a history of electrical dramas

How much to spend

£2000-£2999: A reasonable selection but some will require work. Check history carefully and be prepared to spend money. 

£3000-£3999: Dealer-sold coupés with circa 80,000 miles and short warranties but good histories and in decent condition.

£4000-£5999: Good lot of coupés with about 70,000 miles, most with full service history.

£6000 and above: More convertibles and Brabus models starting to appear, plus tidy low-mileage models of all types. Then run-out Finale and last Brabus cars.

One we found

2005 Smart Roadster 0.7 Light special edition, 32,000 miles, £3290: This Roadster has an MOT until May 2023 and all the electrics seem to be working as they should. However, it could ideally do with a bit of TLC, which is why it is being sold cheaply. It comes with a two-piece hard top. 

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