If you're in the market for a chic city car then, for a long time now, the diminutive Volkswagen Up has been one of the prime choices. There's fresh competition on the block, however, in the form of the quirky and all-new Smart Forfour. How does it stack up against its established rival?
Smart Forfour 1.0 70 Passion Premium
Five-door version of Smart's new city car is based on the latest Renault Twingo
Volkswagen Up 1.0 75 High Up Bluemotion 5dr
The Up has been our Best Buy in this price bracket for years. Is that about to change?
Smart is best known for its tiny two-seater, the Fortwo, which has been buzzing around cities and squeezing into unfeasibly tight parking spaces since 1998. A decade ago the company dabbled with a more conventional four-seater (the Forfour) but slow sales and high production costs sealed that car’s fate after just two years.
Now a new version has been launched and this time it should be much cheaper for Smart to make because, underneath, it’s essentially a Renault Twingo. Smart has made a few subtle mechanical tweaks and fitted a posher interior, but the two cars have identical layouts with a small petrol motor sitting under the boot floor driving the rear wheels. They’re even built on the same production line.
The new Forfour isn’t cheap, though, because even with the less powerful of two available engines it costs roughly the same as our favourite Volkswagen Up. So, which makes the most sense for those after a small and relatively upmarket runaround?
What are they like to drive?
The Smart’s unusual layout has several advantages, one of them being a ludicrously tight turning circle. The Forfour requires just 8.7 metres between kerbs to do a full U-turn, which is pretty much on a par with a London taxi, and makes the 9.8m required by the Up seem decidedly cumbersome.
However, if you’re hoping the fact that the Smart is rear-wheel drive hints at entertaining handling, you’ll be disappointed. Yes, its light steering makes it easy to park but it also means you get very little feedback at higher speeds. Also, because the steering is so slow, you need to do lots of arm twirling to negotiate tight bends. To compound matters, the Forfour starts to feel nervous once clear of the city limits, when there’s plenty of body lean in corners and a shortage of front-end grip.
In contrast, the Up is always a joy to drive no matter whether you’re pootling around town or schlepping up the A1. In fact, plenty of £20,000 hatchbacks could learn a thing or two from the VW’s precise, positively weighted steering and composed handling. It also feels far more stable than the Smart at faster speeds and barely reacts to crosswinds that would have its rival twitching nervously.
The Up has the more comfortable ride, too. You’re jostled around far less over typical patched-up city streets than in the Smart, and it bounces less over dips and crests. The downside is that the VW’s suspension is less forgiving over potholes and intrusions, but that’s a small price to pay.
You’re unlikely to be too impressed by the acceleration in either car, but the three-cylinder Up hauls itself to 50mph willingly enough. Even motorway journeys won’t leave you too frustrated. The Smart is considerably slower, to the point that even gentle inclines can be a challenge. The Forfour’s engine is particularly weak below 2500rpm, so you need plenty of revs when pulling away to avoid stalling. If you regularly venture onto motorways or faster A-roads you’d be wise to find an extra £600 for the more powerful turbocharged version.
The Up is certainly a more peaceful way to get where you’re going if you have to make a long journey. There’s marginally more road noise than in the Smart but less wind flutter and, because the VW doesn’t need to be worked as hard, less engine noise.
What are they like inside?
Getting into the Smart is a doddle because you almost step up into it, rather than ducking and lowering yourself towards the ground as you have to when getting aboard the Up. The Forfour’s relatively high seating position also gives a great view of the road, although seeing out of the Up isn’t exactly tricky, either, thanks to the car’s boxy shape and slim pillars. In fact, over-the-shoulder visibility is actually better in the VW, although the Smart helps its cause by having rear parking sensors as standard.
You may struggle to get completely comfortable in either car because the steering wheel in both adjusts only for height and not reach but you can, at least, raise and lower the driver’s seat. The Up has the better-positioned pedals and more comfortable seats, and also the more logical dashboard. The Smart’s is less conventional in design but more interesting to look at as a result. However, tweaking the temperature involves sliding a hard-to-hold pointer left or right, which isn’t as easy as twisting a dial.
The Smart certainly has the edge when it comes to infotainment, though. Premium Pack models come with the same 7.0in colour touchscreen that features in the range-topping Renault Twingo, which means you get a simple and intuitive interface and lots of features. A DAB radio, Bluetooth and a USB socket are all included, and you even get a sat-nav with an Internet connection that provides up-to-date traffic information.
In contrast, the Up’s infotainment system is beginning to look a bit yesteryear. It’s effectively a portable Garmin sat-nav that plugs in to the top of the dashboard to give you navigation, and also syncs with the car’s DAB radio and Bluetooth systems. The display is just 5.0in from corner to corner so, inevitably, the on-screen buttons are small and hard to hit. Unforgivably, there’s no USB socket either, so you’ll have to look at aftermarket options if you want to charge your phone. Space won’t be a priority to anyone considering either of these cars because, for the same or less cash, you could buy something considerably larger.
That said, both will seat four average-size adults comfortably although the Up has more rear head room. Likewise, the VW’s longer and considerably deeper boot can carry more shopping or luggage.
What will they cost?
If you’re a cash buyer this isn’t an area that’s going to influence your decision very much. The Smart is more expensive to start with and still dearer after dealer discounts.
There’s even less to separate the two when you factor in all the costs you’re likely to face during ownership. This is because, while the Smart will hold its value for slightly longer, the Up has better real-world fuel economy.
There’s precious little between them when it comes to PCP finance costs, too. You’ll likely face a bigger final balloon payment if you choose the Smart but in reality, most finance buyers simply upgrade at the end of the agreement. Both models are well equipped by city car standards.
In fact, even those drivers stepping out of much larger and more expensive cars won’t feel short-changed because alloys and air-conditioning, as well as the aforementioned sat-nav and Bluetooth, are standard on both. The Up adds heated seats and front foglights, which Smart charges extra for, but the Forfour replies with standard cruise control and rear parking sensors. Its air-con system is smarter, too, since it can maintain a set cabin temperature, rather than simply blowing hot or cold air into the cabin on demand.
There are cheaper ways to get about. However, if you’re looking for a top-end city car with a decent amount of space and equipment, and an air of class, the Up is your best option.
The Smart has a good image that will help it hold its value, but it fails to better the VW in enough key areas. What’s more, while the Up can take all roads in its stride, the Smart, in 1.0-litre form at least, feels out of its depth away from the city.
Volkswagen Up 1.0 75 High Up Bluemotion 5dr
For **Brilliant to drive; lots of kit; reasonably practical; better performance
Against No USB socket; small touchscreen; looking pricey
Verdict No longer the bargain it once was, but still impressive
Smart Forfour 1.0 70 Passion Premium
For** Tight turning circle; superb infotainment system; plenty of kit
Against Nervous handling; expensive to buy; feeble performance
Verdict Not without merit but not close to the class-leaders, either