Mercedes-Benz has described its 2011 Smart ForTwo as "facelifted" and "new generation." Only the smartest of Smart fans will notice the difference.
A day's driving a toy box full of Smart variants, and talking to Smart engineers, reveals that work is gaining momentum on an upcoming truly new Smart, under development in a joint effort with Renault with a delivery date of 2013-2014, to replace the model that has become familiar since its European debut in 1998.
For 2011, meantime, a stream of new colours and special editions along with improved engines and new communication, navigation and audio systems is intended to maintain the brand's appeal in Europe - and some of the same is in the cards for North America, albeit with the 70-horsepower, gasoline-fuelled three-cylinder engine remaining as a holdover from previous years.
What customers want: Quality, quality and quality
Case in point: When 2011 production begins in September, the fuel door will be painted the same colour as the body. Later in the production run, LED daytime running lamps will distinguish more expensive models from their predecessors.
Two new body colours, a head-turning light green matte and light blue metallic, are added to the 2011 palette while blue metallic is no longer available. The so-called tridion safety cell - the frame that dominates the car in profile - becomes available in bright white.
More change appears in the interior, where knee protection airbags and window airbags (coupe only) have been added, as have a clock and tachometer. A new entry-line radio is heralded, along with a surround-sound system optional in the Passion model and standard in the Brabus.
More details follow. But let's take a moment to observe how Europeans get more choice - in power as well as special editions. Case in point, the gleaming white (including the new white tridion frame) Smart Brabus Tailor-Made we drove at the introduction of the 2011 lineup.
All European Brabuses are powered by 102-horsepower versions of the car's 999-cc three-cylinder engine, compared to 70 hp for any Smart sold in Canada including the Brabus.
It's good for 155 km/h and capable of accelerating to 100 km/h in 8.9 seconds. Not only can it hold its own in hurtling autobahn traffic, a major surprise is how its automatic/manual transmission shifts with a smoothness unknown in Canadian Smarts, with their rocking motion during vigorous acceleration.
According to Kai-Uwe Trillenberg, a Brabus marketing and sales specialist, the likely explanation is that Brabus utilizes its own software that governs shifts, better suited to the more powerful engines. Canadian Brabus models, on the other hand, have powertrains identical to those in regular Smarts.
Another example of the simply unattainable in North America is the so-called CDI Hybrid. It's not really a hybrid, having no secondary power source, but this tiny, 54-horsepower diesel motor shuts down at intersections.
The first Smarts exported to Canada were diesel powered, but gasoline engines supplanted the oil burner when the diesel couldn't meet tougher emissions standards.
"There is little possibility of another diesel Smart in North America," Markus Riedel, Smart chief engineer, said when asked if advances in emission management might permit a return. "The technology that cleans the exhausts of larger Mercedes-Benz vehicles cannot be applied to the Smart, simply because there isn't room with the engine in the rear.
"Rather than bringing another diesel to North America, we anticipate expanding our sales with the electric Smart going on sale in 2012."
In a first step prior to the electric models going on sale, they're being offered on lease with 45 allotted to Canada beginning in October. For this reporter, driving one such e-Smart here reinforced the conviction from a first drive in Monte Carlo late last year that the car is at its very best an urban driving solution when battery-powered.
A tour of the Brabus facility at Bottrop, where Smarts from the factory in Hambach, France, are modified either for special editions or to individual order, opened the imagination to possibilities beyond the Canadian norm.
A one-off Wallpaper magazine design, for instance, combined shades of blue, red wheels and wood framing the instrument nacelle to stunning effect.
The Tailor-Made is virtually custom made here with a wide choice of accessories, six different soft top colours, "thousands" of body colours and leather in 30 different colours.
A special edition of 10 "Tenth Anniversary in Canada" cars was assembled here in 2009. And Canadian buyers can order their Smart Brabuses with custom interiors or paint, according to Mercedes-Benz spokesperson JoAnne Caza. "The only thing we cannot do is (change) the engine because the car is certified with the one powertrain."
Returning to the regular Canadian lineup, the 2011 has black upholstery and appointments. Optional on this base vehicle is a style package with painted body skirts, and a centre storage box.
The Passion model gains new standard features including a clock and rev counter, ambient lighting, 12-spoke alloy wheels and three-spoke leather wheel with shift paddles. A touring package available on both Passion and Brabus includes a trip computer and cruise control (which deletes shift paddles).
Surround sound is standard in the Brabus, optional in Passion, as is the case with touchscreen navigation/CD/Bluetooth.
2011 Smart Brabus Tailor-Made
(not available in Canada)
Type: Two-door small car
Base price: Not available
Engine: turbocharged 999-cc, three-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 102 hp/129 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with manual capability
Drive: Rear-engine, rear-drive
Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): Not available; premium gas
Alternatives: Nothing quite like it
How much does that new car cost?