It’s always the new kid on the block who has to prove its worth, and the last to join this tiny party of small yet funky city cars is the smart Forfour. Curious to see how well it fares? You came to the right place.
They’re small and they’re more than just some tin cans you use to get from one point to another, but other than that, they’re not all that similar. Every company has its own idea about how a small premium city car should look like and these three are the best example.
On the one hand, you have the new smart Forfour. It’s got five doors, rear mounted engine, rear wheel drive and a very narrow silhouette. The FIAT 500 (we got the C version, with the foldable canvas top) is simply a magnificent reinterpretation of the original design so it’s the only one with some actual history behind it. And then there’s the Opel ADAM which came out of nowhere, but managed to upset the likes of MINI or Citroen DS3 with its looks and dynamics.
The fact that they’re different cars becomes even more obvious once you start fizzing around with them.
Naturally, I started with the smart since it’s the newest and the only one I hadn’t driven before. The first impression is very good: I like the new look that has absolutely nothing to do with the old forfour, and everything to do with the new fortwo. You now feel they’re two cars developed together by the same people – the forfour is basically a fortwo with a longer wheelbase and two extra seats and doors.
On the outside, what strikes you is how close to the two ends of the cars are the wheels. The car literally begins and ends with the two axes, a feature that promises great handling even before you get the chance to touch the wheel. On the other hand, the long and narrow shape of the car makes look very carefully at the weather forecast in fear of windy days when planning out of city trips. It doesn’t look very stable and you should trust your instincts on this one: on the motorway, you’ll be feeling all but the most moderate of breezes.
On the inside, things look orangey. The fabric on the dashboard is a nice touch and the whole interior is pleasant to look at, if a bit too cramped. There’s plenty of space in the front two of the four mentioned in the model’s name, but I’m afraid the other two in the back have better got tiny legs and short necks, because otherwise they’re in for a very painful journey. I’m not exactly representative of the people who’ll be buying this car (I’m 1.98 meter tall or, roughly, 6’7″), but looking at the picture you can realize that even by chopping 20 cm (8 inches) off my abnormally long body, it would still be a tough ride for those in the back.
The downside, apart from the imposed foetus position for those brave enough to climb in the back, is the presence of some Renault features (like the infotainment display or the gear shifter) which, with all due respect for the French brand, partly negate any premium feel Mercedes-Benz would like you to get out of the smart Forfour. They work just fine, but they make you wonder why should you go for the smart forfour, when you could have a Renault Twingo with the same features?
The non-premiumness is enhanced by the rattly nature of the engine. It’s a three cylinders one liter engine puffing out 71 hp and 91 Nm of torque. If that sounds bad on paper, it feels even worse on the road. The engine is struggling to offer even the mildest thrill and it doesn’t try to hide its efforts in any way: it’s very loud , but not in a race car kind of way, but more of a vacuum cleaner. And the vibrations… they become tiresome after a while.
The quoted maximum speed is 151 km/h, but I couldn’t manage to go over 145 km/h on the freeway. The fifth gear is there only to reduce fuel consumption because the car refuses to gain speed once you engage it, managing only to maintain the momentum accumulated in the fourth. And while we’re at it, it doesn’t do a very good job at keeping the fuel consumption down either, a thing made even worse by the small capacity petrol tank (28 liters).
But the rear engine and rear wheel drive architecture of the new smart Forfour does make it a fun car to drive. The steering is superb – it feels natural, uninterrupted and with tonnes of feedback – and makes the car handle great, leaving the impression it could do with a more potent engine. An engine like the 0.9 turbo with 90 hp and 135 Nm. Yeah, also something you get on the Renault Twingo…
The FIAT 500 isn’t a unique car, either. Actually, it’s a FIAT Panda with a much posher body and more attractive interior. The creamy white dashboard looks good regardless of the body color, but lower your eyes a little and you’ll come across some very nasty grey plastic that’s also present on the door panels. It’s got a very cheap look and feel that doesn’t bode well with the rest of the car.
The seating position is high and there’s minimal lateral support, so come a bendy road and you’ll be hanging on to that steering wheel with conviction. The steering, however, is as nice as you get on a front wheel drive car, but the FIAT 500 does tend to understeer a lot when you try to take advantage of the clear response from the wheels. Just like the Opel ADAM, the 500 has a “city” option for the power steering which enables you to turn the wheel with the slightest of efforts.
For this Cabrio version of the FIAT 500, the boot is pretty much a joke – the way it opens makes it look very retro, but it also limits its usability. Rear seats are tight but the head room is better than in the smart Forfour. The engine is less noisy and a little more powerful, but don’t expect too much. Blame the added refinement on the extra cylinder and increased displacement (the FIAT has a 1,242 cubic centimeters four cylinders engine), even though the power output is weaker than in the Forfour (only 69 hp).
Even so, it’s capable of faster accelerations and a higher top speed (160 km/h flatout on the freeway). Still, the FIAT 500 is in desperate need of a new model that should revamp its interior which looks outdated (you can’t spec a 500 with sat nav or an infotainment system display) – I’m sure the flimsiness of the options list is a major turnoff for a lot of people who love the way the car looks.
You won’t be having the same problem with the Opel ADAM. This is a new car built from scratch which signaled a new era for the German mainstream manufacturer. Next models followed the design lines set by ADAM and borrowed interior features like the improved display unit. It is currently awaiting a facelift which will turn the tables a little, meaning that it is its turn to receive updates from the likes of Corsa consisting mostly in a new petrol engine and a modified instrument cluster.
As it is, though, the Opel ADAM is not a bad car at all. Actually, and this is the first real spoiler, it’s the best car we’ve got here. By a considerable margin. It doesn’t feel like a compromise, but like a real (albeit really small) car. The level of comfort for the front seats is unmatched by the other two cars and the ADAM also drives the par. The steering is not as direct as the smart’s and not even as meaty as that in the FIAT, but it gets the job done beautifully and can even be quite enticing once the road clears up and starts to twist.
The quality of the interior is on a different level, years ahead of the FIAT and with a more serious, mature approach than the smart offering. It’s genuinely posh, the way Citroen tried with the DS3 but ultimately failed. The ADAM we had was of the serious kind, but you can go crazy when speccing the little Opel and make it look like a clown – or, if you prefer, like a MINI. It’s a nice option to have, but I prefer it this way better.
It’s easily the fastest car here. Like the FIAT, it’s got a four cylinder engine but this one has an even larger displacement: 1,398 cc. It churns out 100 hp and 130 Nm, enough to make it accelerate effortlessly and behave like a real car, not a pencil sharpener. The engine sound is very well subdued, unlike in the other two cars, and when it does make itself heard, it sounds potent, virile.
It’s not all good news, though. The rear seats are roomy enough, but the layout of the roof and the tailgate make for a very limited head space. Also, access in the back is precarious and the boot is rather tiny (even the 500 C has a larger one and, surprisingly, the smart’s is the largest).
VerdictThe new smart Forfour is a very fun car both to look and to drive. It would clearly benefit from a more powerful engine and a tad more refinement. As it is now, it’s just a very useful toy for urban driving with its narrow presence and extremely tight turning circle. But it’s not enough for it to win here. In fact, it only manages to avoid last place due to its superb steering and far better interior quality and features than the FIAT’s. Yes, the 500 C comes last but leaves a very good impression. It’s a fun allround car that’s let down by its ageing interior and cheap plastics. The seating position is also a bit off and the clutch pedal problem is still there (you can only press it with the tip of your foot). The Opel ADAM is the more complete package and I’m pretty sure it still would have won even if it came with the smaller 1.2 70 hp engine. It’s the complete package: looks, dynamics, steering, comfort, quality, presence. It doesn’t excel in every aspect, but it scores high in all of them and that’s enough to win this contest.
|Model||smart Forfour 1.0||FIAT 500 C 1.2||Opel ADAM 1.4|
|Engine type||L3, aspirated||L4, aspirated||L4, aspirated|
|Max. torque/revs (Nm/rpm)||91/2850||102/3000||130/4000|
|Transmission||5 sp manual||5 sp manual||5 sp manual|
|Top speed (km/h)||151||160||185|
|Acceleration 0-100 km/h (s)||15.9||13.4||11.5|
|Combined fuel consumption (l/100 km)||4.2||5.0||5.0|
|CO2 emission (g/km)||97||110||118|
|Price (euro with VAT, GER)||12,945||14,750||15,090|