The excitement amongst DaimlerChrysler’s Smart brand executives over the forthcoming launch of their ‘forfour’ supermini was obvious even before the start of the international press unveiling in Zurich on Thursday night, writes deputy editor Graeme Roberts.

In fact, the wheels of the chartered jet taking assorted UK journalists to Switzerland from the optimistically-named “London” Stanstead airport (it’s nearer Cambridge than the capital) had barely lifted off the runway before DaimlerChrysler UK’s passenger car marketing chief Dermot Kelly was on the PA, extolling the virtues of the forfour, and saying how excited he and his dealers were to be getting Smart’s first four-seater.

In an imaginatively adapted departure lounge of Zurich’s brand-new (and not yet opened) third terminal, no less than DC’s top executive, Professor Jurgen Hubbert, presided over the spectacular audio-visual unveiling of the attractive little five-door hatchback, developed in conjunction with Mitsubishi, that will go on sale from about spring next year with a choice of five petrol or diesel engines, three trim levels and a list of ‘available’ options, as the Americans like to say, of traditional Mercedes-Benz complexity and length. It will be sold in 30 markets world-wide, and a Brazilian-built derivative, details of which are still secret, will launch Smart in the United States in 2006.

Before unveiling three forfour prototypes for close inspection (no driving yet), Smart cleverly ran shrouded examples of the forfour’s likely European opposition past the assembled hacks on self-guided trolleys. Each featured a huge ‘bar code’ which was read by a ‘code reader’ with Smart’s view of the car flashed up on huge screens for all to see. For example, the Mini attracted the comment “for four passengers?”, a cruel but accurate dig as BMW’s baby is not known for its rear seat room. VW’s Polo was described “dependable German engineering” and PSA’s evergreen 206 “ooh-la-la – the best of the rest”.

Good humoured jibes aside, these are just some of the fine small cars – much loved by a huge number of European buyers – with which the forfour must compete –and ideally beat – if it is to really put Smart on the mainstream car maker’s map. In fact, Smart is now describing itself a “full line” car maker, which is stretching the definition a bit by, say, Ford’s US Focus-sedan-to-Expedition-SUV measure.

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Seen in the ‘metal’ for the first time, the forfour is stylish and distinctive, but less so than its cheeky, tiny predecessors – the two-seat city coupe and various cabriolet/coupe spin-offs. To be fair, there are only so many ways to style and package a Euro supermini but we couldn’t help seeing a hint of a previous Honda/Acura Integra model in the four-headlight nose, some Fiat Punto (another strong rival) in the side profile and Opel Corsa/Punto hints in the prominent C-pillar-mounted tail lamps. However, the opposition doesn’t offer the new Smart’s interchangeable, composite exterior nose, door and rear wheelarch panels, enabling owners to ‘restyle’ their car at will, albeit at a cost. DaimlerChrysler UK’s Kelly said changing the panels, a Smart tradition since the brand’s launch in 1999, is, however, not as easy and takes longer than for the smaller models.

Inside, the forfour is surprisingly spacious for a Euro-style supermini just 3.75 metres long, 1.68m wide and 1.45m high on a 2.5m wheelbase, and weighing under 1,000kg.

Put more practically, yours truly, a hardly svelte five-foot-six, fitted comfortably in the rear, head just brushing the roof lining, behind two German journalists of equally, ahem, generous dimensions. That makes the forfour a fair four seat rival for the likes of the Polo, Punto and 206 and way ahead of the cramped (and three door-only) Mini. A good start. In fact, three people can be carried in the back and the centre passenger gets a proper three-point seatbelt and head restraint.

The cabin is also as imaginative as smaller Smarts and arguably more stylish with colourful dashboard fabric matched to seats and doors (red and blue cloth and black leather on the prototypes we viewed), prominent dual instrument hoods with neatly integrated warning lights, and well laid-out switchgear. Items like door pulls and air vents have been specially styled for the car and the cabin is also practical with a storage bin in each door and beside each front seat and a useful above-glovebox cubby designed to take customised bags sold as dealer accessories – one we saw contained a collapsible umbrella.

The boot is short but well-shaped and deep – though with a high load lip – and there is the usual variety of split-fold rear seat load/passenger combinations and the entire row can also be moved forward or back to vary the boot size and rear passenger legroom. Smart executives said the forfour’s unique selling point will be its big-car features. Many items now taken for granted in the Mercedes-Benz line – such as the Command multi-function control system for audio, phone and sat-nav, a multi-function steering wheel and headlight and rain sensors – will be available as factory options while all models will come standard with Mercedes-like safety features such as anti-lock brakes and stability control.

Smart is aiming for a European entry level price of 11,000 euros (£7,600; $US12,600) but Kelly said UK buyers expect a decent audio system and other items as standard so this country’s right hand drive cars seem destined to start a bit higher. Ballpark starting price for a “premium supermini” like VW’s Polo in the UK is around £7,995.

So who was responsible for what? According to Smart executive vice-president Andeas Renschler, the forfour and Mitsubishi’s European Colt (Mirage)-replacing derivative, which will be very similar to the car already being built and sold in Japan, were developed in just 33 months. The value of shared parts is about 60% and around 40% of the actual components are common to both models.

Mitsubishi designed the underbody, exhaust and fuel tank while Smart took care of the electronics, front axle (each brand uses its own rear suspension), crash integrity and lighting.

The Japanese also designed the three-cylinder, 1.1-litre 55kW and four cylinder, 1.3-litre 70kW and 1.5-litre 80kW petrol engines built in the MDC Power factory in Kolleda, Germany. Smart sorted the 1.5-litre 50kW and 70kW diesels made in Unterturkheim.

Prototype cars shown to the press had both conventional manual transmissions (a first for Smart) and the brand’s traditional clutchless automated manual gearboxes.

The forfour and the European Mitsubishi derivative will be built at NedCar in Holland, a one-time Volvo and Mitsubishi joint venture now fully owned by the Japanese but with Smart due to take a 50% holding next year. Smart executives expect first full-year forfour volume of around 80,000 units and DaimlerChrysler UK’s Kelly told just-auto he hopes to account for around 15,000 of those in his market alone.