It had been a windy day, the gustiest I had experienced for a while. I had enjoyed a foretaste of the weather when I flew my kite the previous evening. The wind at the weekend had been so unpredictable that I elected to fly my practice kite, and not risk crashing my pride and joy into the ground through poor kitemanship.
Leaving the house this morning it still looked to be windy out, the voices on the radio spoke of bridges closed to high-sided vehicles and I drove with some caution. But there was no fuss through the steering wheel of my A4, no sense that any lapse of concentration would cost me dear. Later, that same day, in the Smart things couldn't have been more different.
Never before have I noticed cross-winds and buffeting more than I have in this. What I can’t say is whether it’s anything endemic in the Brabus treatment of the car (more of which later) or just a foible of the Smart ForTwo generally, but I had seriously white knuckles as I drove to Ipswich on this windy day.
It is as well that the steering feels so positive. Perforated leather is wrapped around a steering wheel as thick as a childs forearm, and it does its level best to let you know what’s going on at the front. What’s usually going on with a ForTwo is a distinct lack of front-end grip, as you’d expect for a an eight foot long car with its engine in the back, and this has caught me out on several occasions. You see, the ForTwo is actually a game little beast and well capable of moving with the flow of traffic, easily with the legs over a Ka or a Corsa, and you often find yourself carrying too much speed into roundabouts, which typically gives you big understeer with scrubbed front tyres as a receipt.
It is appropriate, then, that the extra power of the Brabus is supported by more front rubber, possibly more for reasons of style than handling prowess, but the result is that the Brabus has a genuine go-kart feel to it, amplified by the growling off-beat thrash of the three cylinder engine behind your ear. I would kid myself that engine sounds exactly like half a Porsche 911, and the noise is coming from the right direction after all.
To get the most out of this engine you have to put all fears aside of breaking it, and ignore the fact that it always smells rather hot after spirited driving. The gearbox is manual, with an automatic clutch, and the Brabus has paddles for manual shifting, but this mode is so hesitant I generally prefer to leave it in automatic. All ForTwos have this in common, and you soon get used to the peculiar feeling of the car nodding its head on changing gear. In essence the transmission system reminds me of a twist 'n go scooter, and it gives the Smart range the feeling of being able to hop in and drive away.
As a passenger you are first made aware of the ride, which is hard. The car crashes into potholes but, to be truthful, this is inevitable and it is churlish to complain. Physics dictate that such a small, tall car will have a high centre of gravity, and so stiff springing is a necessity to prevent a capsize situation. And of course, inject an extra 30bhp into the picture and it’s all hands on deck to cope with the added go. Nevertheless there is just about room for my ample frame, and materials and finish are as you would expect for the money.
As a driving experience the Brabus certainly builds on the fun already offered by its more ordinary stablemates. The biggest chunk of entertainment is provided on the dual carriageway, where the little car offers overtaking clout that leaves van drivers confused and bewildered, and (crosswinds aside) feels solid and competent up to the 100mph electronic limit that castrates the car somewhat, but is probably a good idea.
That delicious ability to reel other cars in and overtake when least expected is unfortunately betrayed by the styling, which could be seen as slightly heavy handed. With the deep chin spoiler and big fat alloy wheels, there is no doubt it looks “wicked” and “the bollocks”, but possibly ever so slightly embarrassing for what is after all, not a fire-breathing sports car. Of course, it’s breath is considerably warmer than the rest of the range, but it’s no VX or ST chaser.
So what is the business case for the Smart ForTwo Brabus? Let us not forget that this car costs one hell of a lot of money, only offers two seats and 37mpg or so was my reckoning for my time behind the wheel. Well, a Smart, let alone a Brabus can’t really be seen as making sound financial sense. In fact it's almost wholly unjustifiable; like getting a tattoo it’s just something you want and can’t explain why.
It seems a shame that the Smart brand is often pilloried for being, well, pointless. Everybody knows there are cheaper, more practical cars out there, but they are overlooking the fact that competence isn't what this car is all about. With a Smart, and especially a Brabus, you're buying it because you want it. It has a unique appeal and will be bought by wealthy folk after a new toy, much like a Ferrari. Think of the Smart Brabus as a modern day beach-buggy; fun, a bit of a statement, not trying to be a good car.
The Smart Brabus. Not a good car, by any means. But a good thing. You'll know if you want one, and if you do, I'm with you.