Smart ForTwo

The diminutive model still looks every bit as futuristic as it did when the wraps first came off in 1998

Smart is at its best when being innovative and rewriting the rules. The ForTwo did that, but subsequent models - particularly the ForFour - lacked anything new. With the ForTwo Hybrid, the firm is again heading in the right direction. If the new production model can post economy approaching 100mpg, it's bound to be a hit.

Offering a fresh take on the city car class the Smart ForTwo has proved to be more than simply a fad, despite the slower-than-expected sales.

It's no secret that the Mercedes-owned firm has experienced financial problems, but bosses at Smart now hope to leave those troubles behind.The next-generation ForTwo is currently being developed, and is described as the machine which will make or break the company. So could a futuristic hybrid variant lead to a brighter future? To find out, Auto Express got behind the wheel of this prototype version.

Fitted to an existing ForTwo forour test, the hybrid set-up sees a 27bhp electric motor work in tandem with an 800cc 40bhp rear-mounted diesel unit. And the big news is that the car can achieve an amazing 98mpg! As with Toyota's established Prius, the motor moves the vehicle from standstill, then the oil-burner kicks in as you build up speed and accelerate.

The system has two modes, which can be selected by the driver - Standard, in which the two power sources work together, and Fun, where a battery boost is fed into the system to offer sportier performance. Each is available with or without a stop-start feature, which cuts the engine when you halt for more than a split-second.

In our experimental vehicle, the preferred mode was selected via a cumbersome touchscreen box of tricks next to the steering wheel. In production versions, it would simply be a button on the dashboard. At walking pace the car feels sluggish because it is 70kg heavier than the standard diesel, which although not sold in the UK is popular on the Continent.

The extra weight is mostly due to the electric motor and battery, the latter nickel metal hydride unit being stored underneath the driver's seat. However, as speed picks up, the acceleration improves, thanks to the extra torque. The biggest improvement is to Smart's traditionally poor gearchange. As a result of the hybrid system, this is smoothed out to the point where the jerkiness is virtually non-existent.

However, the car is not without flaws. Because the starter motor is what turns over the diesel engine when you're on the move, drivers have to get used to the noise of it firing every time they need a supplement to electric power. In urban conditions, that's every few seconds - and it soon becomes irritating.

On the plus side, fuel consumption and emissions are 15 per cent less than the standard ForTwo diesel and the battery is fully charged after 10 minutes on the road. If the next-generation car can live up to the promise of the firm's hybrid system, Smart's finances could soon be back on track.

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