There’s A Rare Smart Roadster For Sale Just Across America’s Border

1forbiddenfruit

Located just across the United States-Mexico border is an offbeat piece of automotive history. A 2005 Smart Roadster sits, waiting for someone to experience Germany’s take on the British roadster. There is just one problem: you’ll have to get it back across the border.

I’ve been asking readers to send me sweet cars, buses, and RVs for sale. My inbox has been filling with awesome vehicles, some of which I’m actively researching right now! But yesterday, between the fireworks, taking a motorcycle ride, and going swimming, a reader sent in a car that made my heart skip. It was such a good find that I responded to the email right away. Thank you, Daveed!

The car is this red 2005 Smart Roadster. It’s a car that’s annoyingly so close, yet so far from being in my clutches.

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Now, I know that some people don’t understand my love for Smarts. I have five Fortwos, after all, and I’m always looking for more. Fortwos are slow, sometimes uncomfortable, and are usually connected to a drivetrain that leaves something to be desired. Americans voted with their wallets that the Fortwo didn’t really belong, and eventually the brand pulled out of this country entirely.

But other parts of the world got more exciting Smarts. Arguably the coolest of which was the Smart Roadster.

 

Smart Roadster Coupe1
Smart

 

Smart launched in 1998 with a city car concept that promised to make driving around a city trendy, fun, convenient, and safe. The City Coupe (later renamed Fortwo) is a tiny two-seat runabout that is so small that it could be parked end-to-end in a parallel space and not stick out. It had plastic panels that resisted denting and could be swapped out in just a few hours. And its distinctive “tridion” safety cell made the car safer than most would expect.

To get all of a real car into such a diminutive package, the engineers at Smart crammed the drivetrain into the rear of the vehicle. The car’s three cylinder engine and transmission tuck neatly under the vehicle’s trunk and drive the rear wheels. This allows the front end to be real stubby as it holds only components like the radiator, cooling fan, and some HVAC parts.

It wasn’t long before Smart’s designers began proposing a future where the company’s concepts would be applied to different kinds of cars. In 1999 and 2000, Smart rolled out a design study and then a concept car for a sports car at European auto show. This sports car would harken back to the British roadsters of the 1950s and 1960s. Where the Fortwo focused on making city driving easy and trendy, the Roadster would hone in on the driving experience.

In 2003, the Smart Roadster and Roadster Coupe released to the world.

Roadster And Coupe
Smart

On the outside, the Roadster looks like nothing else built before or since. Angular plastic panels are contrasted by Smart’s signature safety cell. And at the top of that safety cell is a roof that pops its top for an open-air experience. In more expensive trims, this is a folding arrangement that electrically folds itself back behind the seats. I’d say this car looks even more fashionable than the City Coupe/Fortwo that came before it.

Inside, the interior is similarly distinctively Smart, with gauges sprouting out of a fabric-covered dashboard. Swiveling HVAC pods flank the dash’s sides and the instrument cluster looks like it would be at home on a motorcycle.

But the neat part is that underneath, the Roadster has the running gear of a Fortwo.

Smart Roadster 2003 1280 19
Smart

The engine–still out back and under a comically tiny trunk in the regular Roadster–is the 700cc Mercedes-Benz M160 Suprex turbocharged three. In lower-spec Roadsters it makes 61 HP with higher models getting 82 HP. In 2004, Smart released a Roadster modified by tuning house Brabus that makes 101 HP. Acceleration times to 60 mph were about 10.9 seconds, 10.7 seconds and 9.5 seconds, respectively. So, not fast no matter which you get.

The Roadsters would also be faster than the Fortwos in which it gets its running gear from. While a Fortwo, with its short wheelbase, tiny tires, and narrow track, topped out at an electronically-limited 84 mph, the Roadsters didn’t have such limiters. Thus, the 61 HP Roadster hit 99 mph with the 82 HP variant hitting 108 mph. The Roadster Coupe, which had a sleeker profile thanks to a bigger glass trunk, hit about 112 mph.

Null Null
Smart

Getting a Brabus got you right at that 120 mph mark.

It sounds like Smart had all of the right ingredients to perfectly emulate the old British roadster. I know, this isn’t a ton of power. But remember, old British roadsters weren’t that powerful, either.

It would go on to polarize car reviewers. One famous review by then Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson said that the car feels “so much more alive than any million-horsepower, heavyweight BMW.” He went on to say how he wanted to hate it but “it’s so responsive and such a giggle that it just puts an enormous smile on your face.” Clarkson finishes his review by comparing the 1,851-lb Roadster to the British sports cars of the ’50s and ’60s before calling it a “proper, undiluted, sports car.” Top Gear went on to nominate the Roadster its Fun Car Of The Year for 2005.

Other reviewers were less kind. Know how I said that these had the running gear of the Fortwo? That also includes the Fortwo’s single-clutch six-speed automated-manual transmission. These transmissions, especially the earlier units, were known for shifting so slow. Practically every review, even Clarkson’s, noted how slow it shifts.

Smart Roadster 2003 1280 18
Smart

Andrew Frankel writing for Autocar (referenced by Hagerty) called it “least enjoyable of all” when compared to a Ford Streetka, Mazda MX-5, and Peugeot 206CC. A number of Australian reviews praised the car’s handling and sound, but concluded that the car had too little storage and too high of a price. Folks in Europe could get them for the equivalent of $16,914 in 2003. That car came with the slower engine, without a power roof, without an air-conditioner, without alloy wheels, and even without a radio. Getting those luxuries bumped the price to about $24,254.

Car And Driver was so nice to the little Roadster that its reviewer noted that its transmission worked better than similar units found in BMWs and Maseratis of the day. A common theme with the reviews was that the Roadster had sharp go kart-like handling, but just didn’t have the speed to back it up.

So, what’s going on with this 2005 Roadster in Mexico? It looks to be in rather fantastic shape with its red paint still shining and leather seats looking really clean.

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The car’s history or powertrain aren’t noted at all, and there isn’t even an engine picture to help you identify what’s going on. Despite that, I can’t stop myself from staring at it and dreaming about owning it. Asking price is just $6,000, which makes it an easily attainable dream car.

The seller here says that the car is one of two, but that’s not really true. I’ve seen numerous Roadsters come up for sale in Mexico over the years. What they may mean is that their Roadster is one of two for sale in Mexico right now, because I could find just one other for sale. What I haven’t seen is one that’s just right there on the border.

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These cars are known for their aggressive water leaks. If you search the net you’ll find people complaining about water leaks before their cars’ warranties even expired. And a particularly bad leak can occur right over the car’s computer, frying it out. That adds on to the drivetrain’s existing quirks, like an alternator that can rust-seize if you live in a humid place and don’t drive frequently.

As the Lane Motor Museum notes, these issues added up to high warranty costs and led to the demise of the Roadster. Smart sold just 43,093 of them before it got canceled in 2006. Being 20-inches shorter than a Miata with a giggle of a drive wasn’t enough. Businessman David James tried to save the Roadster with Gordon Murray’s help. The car would have also been a revival of the AC brand, but it never got left the concept stage.

Smart Roadster 2003 1280 15
Smart

Unfortunately, getting a Roadster across the border would probably be more work than it’s worth.

A number of the importers that I’ve worked with on my importation articles have noted that it is possible to get around the infamous 25-year import rule. But doing so costs a ton of money, involves a mountain of paperwork and mind-boggling amounts of time. And there’s no guarantee that the importer’s efforts will even pay off. I’ve been told more than once that I’d pay several times the value of a cheap import to do it. Still…a girl can dream.

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64 Responses

  1. From the pics at least, it looks to be in pretty good condition. The red on the SR is prone to fading, this one will have been garaged or the paint brought back to life. The grey plastic front and back is supposed to look like that, colour coordinated in a lighter tone on cars with the silver “tridion” hoop. Definitely the 82 PS version going by the trim. The 61 PS version usually is on steel wheels, has different interior trim and seats and a (now quite valuable) hard top instead of the folding roof.

    In my experience, they are fun little things with a charming/frustrating mix of flaws. Gearbox really isn’t that bad, needs to be in ‘manual’ mode at all times though. Great car to practice left foot braking as well. Looks aside best feature IMO: tiny size, light weight (at least 100 kg less than an NA Miata). Not fast, but faster than the 0-60 suggests. Put sticky tyres on (Yoko make a 15″ AD08 that fits) to become that last of the late brakers .

    Mine just went to the oldest offspring of a good friend. Regretting it a little bit, but looking for an early Elise before a) I can’t get in and out of them any more b) you lot buy them all up now they are getting 25+ ;-).

    1. Oh snap! I wasn’t even paying attention to the wheels! You’re right, it’s most likely the 82 in there.

      Smart tried the whole bare bones base model thing with the Fortwo in America. For $12,310 you got a Pure without A/C, crank windows, no radio, opaque roof, and steel wheels.

      They were so deeply unpopular that I don’t think dealerships sold them for any longer than a year or so. Dealerships instead started ordering them at least with A/C and radio.

      1. Around the time they were launched, I spent a silly amount of time looking for one I could afford (without much luck, bought a used one much later). So somewhere in the big pile of useless knowledge amassed over the years, there is a pretty complete version of the Roadster price list ;-).

        How incredibly out of touch the US commercial side must have been. To even try and shift an A/C less car in the States… We got the “Pure” trim as well, but people really bought “Passion” and upwards. They’ve always struggled to make money with them, probably explains how hard they were trying to get margin from options.

  2. Go down there, buy it, strip it down to the VIN tagged shell with David’s help and put all the parts into the back of one of David Tracy’s rusted out Jeeps and get it back across the board

    Recycle the shell for a couple Cases of Corona at a Mexican scrapyard

    Jason can bail you out if it all goes wrong

    Reassemble at leisure on one of your US VIN Smart cars

  3. I own a Beat, I owned a Midget in the past, several MGBs and a couple of Miatas. The gearbox meant these never appealed to me (I lived in the UK in the early noughties) – they are forbidden spoiled fruit. There is much fun available in previously forbidden fruit, Kei cars and original Minis. Someone in the States has a Scimitar SS1, the better TVRs are coming of age too – fun, distinctive and partly styled by Peter Wheeler’s dog. There is little smart in the little Smart Roadster, money is way better spent elsewhere (in my opinion).

    1. Even as a previous owner, can see the logic in that. Especially in the UK where you’re free of the draconian TÜV and there’s a lot more choice in affordable light weight cars. On the continent, and in ‘daily driver’ scenario, the SR’s case becomes much stronger. Used mine as main transport for a good while. Sips fuel, doesn’t mind sitting on the Autobahn at 90+, lots of good smart specialists for stuff complicated to fix.

      My biggest frustration with them is more along the lines of “how good it could have been”. They made some pretty silly design decisions IMO. Always had the feeling that half the team wanted to make a sports car and the other a bijou city car…

  4. Mercedes, I love you and I love that you unashamedly love unloved cars like Smarts, but I’ve got a bone to pick here and I’m just gonna let it out. Don’t let it stop you from liking what you like, not that I expect that’s possible short of applying some kind of alien super-science directly to your dopamine receptors.

    I honestly believe that half the problem with Smart in America was the branding—specifically the name. It’s just so… smug. It makes you feel like the drivers of these cars think they’re somehow better than you, better than everyone else in their Stupid cars. Like there’s some unspoken admonition that if you’re driving anything else, you’re Doing It Wrong and causing climate change, urban poverty, and probably scrofula. That the world would be better if only we all drove strange-looking little pods that turn out to not actually even get particularly good gas mileage. They were cars for mega-nerds, like Steve Urkel and his Isetta except with more contempt.

    I think a lot of Americans picked up on that branding, whether it was intentional or not on the part of Smart Inc., and that’s why the cars became targets of ridicule rather than just quirky oddballs that are good at some things and kinda charming in a goofy way. I also think that the fact that they were expensive, not particularly efficient, slow, and not well-suited to the (perceived, if not necessarily actual) needs of most American drivers was a problem of course, but man, that brand name just hit such a sour note.

    1. I think size is a major factor too – I can recall multiple times seeing a Smart being driven and having a family member comment something along the lines of “wow wouldn’t want to be in an accident against a pick up in one of those things!”

      1. Size was definitely a factor for Americans. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been asked “aren’t you afraid to drive around semis in that thing?” The way I see it, if I’m getting hit by a semi, I’m going to have a bad day no matter what I’m driving.

        Side note: I’m LOVING your screenname and profile photo. 🙂

    2. The funny thing is you’re more right than you think.

      Something that I discovered while doing today’s research is that Mercedes-Benz at one point associated the “Smart” name with being and looking intelligent…which makes even me cringe.

      And even more to your point, in 2010 Smart USA thought that it could solve the problem of sinking American sales with the “Against Dumb” campaign.

      Officially, Smart USA was saying that commuting to work in an SUV was dumb. The ads noted how above 90% of daily commutes have just 1 or 2 people per car.

      Unfortunately, the ads read like Smart was calling you dumb for not buying a Fortwo. Big oof!

      Long story short, I love the cars, but have facepalmed myself over and over about the business-side.

    3. I don’t think the anti-elitism thing had picked up much steam when these first came to the US, as far as broad cultural purchase. These were 100% DOA because of the price and the frankly appalling fuel economy. It also doesn’t help that “quirky” seems to be a liability for durable goods purchases.

      They cost twice as much as a yaris, and were less practical than a mini.

        1. Really the largest advantage of a Smart over a Yaris or Fit is the ease of parking, but most Americans live in cities with more parking space than living space. So in broad terms, the only practical considerations here are cost, space and fuel efficiency. It was DOA for a lot of reasons, they could make a use case for Manhattan, where the parking spots are made up and highway efficiency doesn’t matter, and I’m hard-pressed to think of another place that has such shortages on parking real estate.

  5. Ever since I saw one in Paris back when they were relatively new I’ve wanted one. Simply on looks alone.

    Drivetrain is a bit of a downer, but I would LOVE to K-swap a roadster one day. I think someone even built a kit the last time I looked.

  6. “While a Fortwo, with its short wheelbase, tiny tires, and narrow track, topped out at an electronically-limited 84 mph”

    I could have sworn the Smart that was tailgating me years ago on I355 in the middle of the night was keeping up at 90+. I have this distinct memory simply because the whole thing was so ridiculous I was literally laughing. Perhaps it was modified.

    1. The 84 mph ones are the first-generation cars.

      The second-gens that America got has a limiter that’s supposed to kick in at 90. Though, I’ve gotten mine as high as 98.

      Third-gens are supposed to be limited to 96, though I’ve gotten mine to about 101…in Mexico, of course. 🙂

  7. Seems cheap. Similar enough to a ForeTwo… maybe do a cost/benefit analysis of registering it as a foretwo and seeing what happens. What the worst case? they take it an crush it? It’s not a $100k GTR or a LR Defender…

      1. The only Smart Kei car was the Smart ForTwo K, which was slightly narrower.

        The Roadster isn’t one because the engine’s too big (by 38cc), it’s very slightly too long and about 7 inches too wide.

        Yes I just made this post because I’m amused by the minutiae of the key car regulations.

        1. I am heading out to Nashville the last week of August. I was there several years ago and took an expensive cab ride out only to find out the museum was closed in the middle of the week. Looked it up and read it wrong. I have a history of this kind of thing, did you know the Louvre is closed on Tuesday? I do, now.

          Anyway, I am very excited about coming out there next month, and will carefully check hours before I head out.

  8. By “one of two” the owner may mean they have two for sale?
    I wouldn’t put it past someone with that strange garage/courtyard setup.
    The pictures aren’t in the driveway, there’s nowhere for the car to go. Is that a hose on a reel mounted above the door?
    What I’m seeing is a dedicated courtyard type space within the confines of a larger structure used for the sole purpose of washing their collection.

  9. It’s not drugs so you don’t have to worry about the dogs.
    I work for an appliance distribution company, you’d be surprised how little customs really cares about certain things. You might also be surprised by she size of some commercial appliances.
    All you need is a little custom packaging. Nothing to see here, just another industrial appliance.
    It doesn’t take a lot of money just a little ingenuity.

  10. As far as I remember, if you pull out the drivetrain and steering rack, you can import it as parts for a kit car. Then get a ForTwo engine and steering rack stateside, which I presume should be pretty easy bolt-ons, and you’ve got the complete car.

  11. I was in Italy about 3 years ago and saw one of these on the street. Totally smitten, if I read about them back when they were new had forgotten. Striking little car that looks like a lot of fun.

    No chance of importing and getting away with it (unless you just didn’t title/register it and take your chances). Unified VIN data assume when they enter it into the DMV database anywhere your automotive roll of the dice will be craps.

    Trying to embed a pic, don’t know if it will work.

  12. The roadster coupe almost like the Delorean time machine from the side, especially in all-silver

    Also, the best thing about 2000’s smart cars is the awesome interior that came in cool colors

  13. I have actually seen one last Saturday on an expressway here in Poland. Nice little car, passengers were quite surprised when I told them that this is a Smart, the same brand as the funny two seater.
    43k units isn’t that rare though. My two dream cars – Citroën C6 and Renault Avantime – got, respectively, 23k and 8k of sales. Hopefully there’s still some left when I finally will have enough cash to splurge on those.

  14. I really like the Coupe’s profile. Looks like a mini shooting brake. Jason did a whole article on what constitutes a shooting brake back when, but I don’t remember the considerations.

    Can it be manual-swapped reasonably? I don’t mind long 0-60 as long as I can put it the gear of my choice reliably before a corner—hell, I deal with that now with my supposedly made-of-glass transmission now.

    Too bad you’re not closer to that border: I bet a reader down there could help you out!

  15. You know…. I’m not into tons of paperwork and other shit… I would buy a junker here in the US with a clean vin and title. Register it… Go to Mexico with my vin plates freshly removed tag and insurance, buy the car….setup shop for a day or two… Do some selective changes and drive it back across with a US state tag on it… I’ve been through that line… They don’t give a shit about your car. I mean how many know it isn’t legal in the states? Maybe a R34 but that roadster? Nah …I’ll take my chances. Then re register it in some far off state and county with no I sections and enjoy your Roadster.

    I’m down

  16. Even Bill Gates couldn’t get a car through the grey market process. His car was a 959 but if the richest man in the world (at the time) can’t get it done, there’s little hope for the rest of us.

    As far as the manumatic trans goes, the 2nd gen Smart had the worst of any car I have ever driven. It was as if you were driving with someone who had never driven stick before. The 1-2 shift felt like it took 5 sec as it switched in the middle of an intersection with a F350 bearing down on you. The 3rd gen was slightly better (annoying as opposed to dangerous). I drove these quite often as they were the Car2Go cars in Canada.

    A friend of mine had a first gen CDI and it was mechanically totaled when the transmission crapped the bed at 80k km a couple of years out of warranty.

  17. I’m all for you getting one. Please get a nice warehouse with a quality dehumidifier to help keep your cars in amazing shape though. You got a wonderful collection, it just makes me sad to see them weather away in a parking lot.

  18. If it’s cheap enough and a big enough dream, can’t you bring it in and warehouse it for a while? Use it on track days, but otherwise play the waiting game until it’s 25 and you can register it for on-road use?

    1. No. Getting it in, in any shape resembling a car, still triggers a bunch of import rules.

      Unless you’re willing to pay the cash to try and get an exception (such as Show & Display) you either have to try and get it across illegally in one piece, or try to Johnny Cash it by importing it “one piece at a time”.

  19. There’s a Brabus Roadster that would show up to the Houston C&C from time to time. (Back when Houston had a C&C.) It still had its Mexico plates on it though. I’ve wondered how long you’re allowed to stay in the states on the Mexican plates. As long as you have an address in Mexico to register it to and can reregister it every year and somehow work out the insurance, could you keep one in the states indefinitely?

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