The Automotive World's Most Unlikely Marriage
At first glance, Smart and Brabus must be the most unlikely bedfellows in the automotive industry.
For the past three decades, Brabus has built an enviable reputation as the tuner of Mercedes cars for the lunatic fringe, and recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a special C-Class powered by a twin-turbo 6.3-liter V12 that will hit 224 mph. By contrast, Smart manufactures cute, eco-friendly city cars that have a top speed of 85 mph.
After an association that has lasted more than six years, Brabus is now to Smart what AMG is to Mercedes. The 2008 Smart Fortwo Brabus is the flagship of the new range of Smart Fortwos, and while it's not planned to be a part of Smart's forthcoming arrival in the U.S., there's no harm in thinking about the possibilities.
This Ride Has Been Pimped
Let's be frank. The 2008 Smart Fortwo Brabus Xclusive looks like a doodle by a teenager in the midst of a very strong hormone rush. As you'd expect, there are new fascias front and rear, plus rocker sill skirts, and the twin chrome-tipped exhausts might have come from a Ferrari. The biggest change comes from the replacement of the standard 15-inch tires with 175/50R16s in front and wide 225/35R17s in the rear. The new Brabus bodywork features some seriously blistered wheel arches in the rear as a result.
The Brabus is only available in silver and black, giving this tiny igloo a hint of menace.
These changes exaggerate the car's cartoonlike quality. It's just 107.4 inches long, and dressing such a tiny car in such aggressive clothing is undeniably silly, but it's hard not to fall for this car's charm. The 2008 Smart Fortwo Brabus is the Scrappy-Doo of the automotive world.
Brabus has always sought to combine outrageous performance with luxury, and the Smart Fortwo is no different from any other Brabus. Clamber into the surprisingly spacious cabin and you'll find your derriere nestled into a leather-upholstered seat while your paws grasp a sporting three-spoke steering wheel. The shift lever, handbrake and pedals have all been adorned with aluminum. The double-B logo of Brabus also adorns the clock, the tachometer and driver seat — there are more designer touches here than in the wardrobe of Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham.
There's also no shortage of luxury kit. In addition to the standard features, you'll find air-conditioning, electric windows, heated seats and (Smart proudly boasts) "velour floor mats." It's also good to report the presence of front and side airbags, ABS, electronic stability control and naturally Smart's trademark safety cell of high-strength steel. The Smart might be minute, but it has an impressive reputation for safety.
Life on the Highway
Plonk the key into the little slot beside the shift lever — a Smart signature — and give it a twist. The turbocharged 1.0-liter inline-3 engine buzzes into life. It sounds eager and boisterous, like a young protégé who's finally been told she can train with the big boys.
Brabus has improved the breathing of this engine, increased the boost to 6 psi and introduced a new engine management system. The result is a 30 percent increase in power output above the 71 horsepower of the Fortwo Passion's powertrain to 98 hp at 5,500 rpm. The torque peaks at 103 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm, the point at which full boost is available.
By the standards of a sports car (or even a decent sport compact), the Brabus isn't quick, but with only 1,720 pounds to haul around, it feels suitably nippy. Give the throttle an exuberant kick and the Brabus will scurry to 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 9.9 seconds, while the top speed is electronically limited to 95 mph. Given its diminutive size, the sensation of speed is magnified and the Brabus feels just fast enough to induce a giggle.
The Stoplight Grand Prix
Smart's semiautomatic five-speed transmission has been improved by Brabus to quicken the switch between gear ratios by 20 percent, and both 1st and 5th have shorter ratios as well. That's good news for the stoplight grand prix, but not so good news for refinement. The jerk between ratios can become irritating, although if you lift off the throttle during upshifts, it's possible to make smooth progress.
The ride is also on the unacceptable side of firm. A sport suspension calibration coupled with ultralow-profile tires is hardly a recipe for limolike suppleness, and the problem is exacerbated by the Smart's short 73.4-inch wheelbase. The Brabus tends to bob, weave and buck its way along the road in a way that's less than cultured. Unless the road is perfectly smooth, a standard Smart Fortwo rides more smoothly.
These chunky tires offer plenty of grip, so the Brabus can be hurled around with plenty of zest. But most of the fun is derived from the Brabus' exhaust note and its diminutive size rather than handling prowess. And if you show too much enthusiasm, the standard stability control proves rather too keen to intervene. In the end, the 2008 Smart Fortwo Brabus feels a little crude.
Irrational, Yet Strangely Appealing
One of the Smart's key selling points is its eco credentials, and the Brabus actually lives up to this. On the European driving cycle, the Brabus gets 54.3 mpg compared with 36.7 mpg for a Mini Cooper.
But the 2008 Smart Fortwo Brabus Xclusive does carry a price, specifically a bottom line in Germany of $27,900 in coupe form and $32,100 in cabriolet guise. At this price, it's hard to make a rational case for the Brabus' $9,000 premium over the standard Smart Passion, a car that is in many ways dynamically superior.
And yet, for all its flaws, it's still hard not to be seduced by the charm of the 2008 Smart Brabus. This unlikely partnership has produced an eccentric car with a unique character that is difficult not to like, warts and all.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.