Feeling a sense of déjà vu? You aren’t alone - we really have driven this car before, albeit only briefly.
And while we described it as an “object of utter frivolity” in our quick test, we wanted to see whether the BRABUS Fortwo had any hidden talents - and whether its character can make up for any shortcomings in daily use.
It’s no use - the BRABUS still looks fantastic. After a week with the car it continued looking great on the drive, and certainly doesn’t hint at a basic shape which has remained unchanged since the current model’s launch in 2007.
The 17-inch Monoblock alloy wheels look huge in the tiny arches, and 225-section tyres at the rear are almost hot hatchback-spec. They’re so wide the rear arches have been granted an extra lip to keep them in check. By contrast, the front wheels get only 175-section rubber bands, reminding you that Smart doesn’t want to give this tall, narrow cartoo much grip.
Crystal white paint sets the car off a treat, contrasting with the dark grey alloys, the dark grey headlamp surrounds, and of course the black fabric soft top - that’s right, it’s a convertible. The profile doesn’t change much whether the roof is up or down, but remove the two roof bars and the car becomes more distinct from the coupe version.
Those who obsess over cleanliness will be less keen on the shape however - it attracts dirt like no other car we’ve driven, compounded by the white paint. Throw in spray-covered winter roads and you’d need to give the car a thorough wash pretty much every week.
If you’ve never sat in a Smart before, the interior space might surprise you. It’ll easily accommodate taller drivers and passengers, and it’s only when you turn your head around you realise how small the car actually is.
This shortness limits luggage space, which in the cabrio is 220 litres. That’s better than you’d get in a Toyota iQ however, and enough to squeeze in an overnight bag and a few smaller pieces of luggage for weekends away.
The seats only adjust forward and backward, raising or lowering respectively as they do so. The steering wheel doesn’t adjust either, but at 5’8” tall we found the driving position just about right. The leather seats feel firm but proved reasonably comfortable on a jaunt from Yorkshire to Cheltenham and back, and their heating was appreciated on cold mornings.
The cabin is a curious mix of quality and utter naffness. The wheel and seats are leather-lined, while the gear selector and handbrake grip are genuine aluminium. The lower dashboard is covered in a faux-leather which is convincing to look at but less so to touch, but the real crimes are reserved for plastics lower in the cabin. They look and feel well below par, and really make the car feel its age.
The 6.5” touchscreen system is a little outdated, but proved easy to use. It synced up with an iPhone without any troubles, though bumpy roads seemed to induce skipping during some songs. The navigation system is less impressive. Firstly, it can’t be used simultaneously with the music player - you can pick directions or music on longer journeys, but not both. Secondly, it doesn’t allow full postcodes - irritating in early sat-nav systems, just plain idiotic these days.
Still, with the roof down - the operation of a button press - the interior ambience is transformed. It’s a noisy, unrefined space whether you’ve gone topless or not, but it’s more forgivable with the roof down and the sun shining in.
Driving the Fortwo BRABUS is a mixture of pleasure and pain. On the motorway, pleasure comes in the form of the car’s surprising turbocharged performance, but pain stems from its spinnaker-like behaviour in crosswinds which leaves you gripping the wheel for dear life.
On country roads, pleasure is the car’s nippy acceleration, baby-Porsche exhaust note and surprising grip if you’re gentle with the controls. But you’ll find pain in the form of an admonishing stability control system (in fairness, designed to keep you upright) and spongy brakes.
And in town, pleasure comes from nipping through tight gaps you’d not even attempt in a VW up!, rapid off-the-line acceleration, light steering and good visibility; pain is all about the car’s ride quality, which sends shudders through the cabin over bumps you didn’t even know were there.
Driving the BRABUS is actually great fun more often than not, but you have to be in the right mood for it. The ride quality alone may put you off if you’re used to regular cars - though it’s worth noting that while nowhere near perfect, non-BRABUS Smarts do handle bumps rather better on their taller tyres.
The Smart’s rear-mounted engine is actually a cracker. 999cc, turbocharged, and with three cylinders, it develops 102 horsepower at 6,000rpm and a useful 108 pounds-feet of torque between 2,500-3,600rpm.
Due to the way the car is geared you’re always sitting right in the torque band at motorway speeds, and acceleration is quite lively even above 70mph - other city cars wouldn’t have a hope of keeping up. In fact, it accelerates well at most speeds - the official 0-62 mph time is only 8.9 seconds, and top speed is a limited 96 mph.
But: and this is a big, voluptuous but - the gearbox can best be described as an acquired taste. And we’ve heard it called a lot worse.
Essentially, it’s a five-speed automated manual. It can be left to its own devices in automatic, or controlled by rocking the gear selector fore and aft, or using the wheel-mounted paddle-shift. We suggest you do one of the latter, and give a little lift off the gas each time you do, because it smooths and speeds up the changes no end. In automatic, every change results in a long, drawn-out pause during which you’re rocked forward and backward in your seat. It’s undignified, slow, and frustrating.
Manual changes are better, but by no means perfect. Once you get used to it it’s quite fun - but it could be even better with a better gearbox, and just think how quick the acceleration could be without wasting whole seconds changing gear…
Value for money
There’s no easy way to say this, so we’ll just come out with it: £17,930.
It would be insulting your intelligence to even attempt to justify that price. A basic Smart starts at £9,450, which makes some sense. Nearly eighteen grand does not, and for that reason the BRABUS is more of a toy for those with money to burn than it is a likely candidate for someone’s city runaround.
In fairness, a non-cabriolet BRABUS, without our car’s electric heated mirrors, ambient lighting, surround sound system, cruise control and power steering starts at a slightly less heart-stopping £15,320, yet keeps many of its other qualities. It’s probably a little quieter too, and has a more easily-accessible boot.
And for a tiny car, it’s very well equipped. In addition to the above, it gets leather seats, a host of safety goodies, dozens of unique BRABUS bits, and of course that 102-hp engine. But there are many, many cars with similar equipment levels and a whole lot more power for the same price.
Economy is pretty good though. The BRABUS requires super unleaded. Normally this would cost you a fortune, but even when running on reserve we couldn’t squeeze more than about 27 litres into the tank, and recorded 50 mpg. Driving slightly more sedately, you may get even closer to the car’s official 54.3 mpg combined rating.
The score here doesn’t tell all. If you’re in a position to buy one without really caring about the price tag, you can give it two more points. And if you don’t mind the jerky gearbox, give it another.
But judged objectively, where things like price and ease of use matter for city car buyers, it’s impossible to grant it a higher rating. There are, quite simply, dozens of other vehicles which make more sense as city cars - including the BRABUS’s lesser siblings, like the Fortwo mhd, or the diesel cdi. Priced at £10,650 and with 85.6 mpg combined economy, the diesel in particular is hard to ignore.
What the press think
The critics’ observations don’t come as much of a surprise. The gearbox, motorway manners and ride are all panned, but the car’s character, space and ease of parking are praised.
For more, see our full summary of the Smart Fortwo Cabriolet alongside reviews, photos, videos and stats.