All around us people are stopping to point and stare. Some are even starting to laugh as the raindrops chase themselves down the lenses of my new pink "Crossblade" sunglasses. This is fascinating: Five minutes ago, when the sun had been doing its thing, we'd been heralded as the height of urban cool.
Now we're the butt of jokes. A delivery van pulls alongside and the driver waggles an umbrella in our direction. He's laughing at his own joke, and we're forced to admit that it was actually quite funny. English van drivers are notorious for their cynicism, so his positive, mocking attitude is intriguing.
The Crossblade costs a profligate 15,990 ($25,200) and is undeniably a show-off's car, but everyone finds it genuinely amusing. I can remember driving one of the first Ferrari 360 Modenas through similar streets, and the gasps of admiration were mixed with sneers of disgust at its ostentation. The Smart has no such problems.
It began life as a concept car shown at the Geneva motor show in 2001, but production was confirmed after a favorable reaction. Two thousand will be built worldwide, and each car carries a chrome plaque on the fascia displaying its production number.
The Crossblade is derived from the Cabriolet version of the Smart City Coupe that's been populating Europe's urban centers since October 1998. Developed by DaimlerChrysler as an answer to congestion and parking problems, the tiny two-seater, which is significantly shorter than the original Mini, had a troubled conception. Early stability problems-the Coupe famously fell over in front of a press photographer-combined with a high price meant that it failed to meet initial sales targets.
But the brand has recovered-116,000 Smarts were sold across Europe and Asia last year, and Smart is about to launch the larger Roadster and Roadster Coupe. DaimlerChrysler is also expected to announce shortly whether Smart will enter the U.S. market. This decision was originally due late last year, but it was postponed following the events of Sept. 11.
Smart is now marketed as a stylish, lifestyle alternative and is to DaimlerChrysler what MINI is to BMW. The arrival of the Crossblade fits easily with this revised philosophy. Although it's ostensibly a Smart City Cabriolet minus the body panels, the Crossblade has been comprehensively re-worked.
At the front, a new chin spoiler is joined by a narrow, tinted wind deflector, which seems to direct the wind into my face. At speeds above 40 mph it becomes downright painful, and anyone hoping to reach the 85-mph top speed would be well advised to don a helmet.
The absence of doors may also concern the self-conscious. In their absence, the Crossblade employs two steel safety bars at shoulder level that pivot, Lamborghini-style, upwards from the front, and double as an armrest. Stepping inside is easy, and occupants are greeted by a fascia that differs little from the Coupe.
There's a stereo, a heater and a pair of airbags, and the whole structure has been waterproofed. A quartet of drainage channels in the floor is joined by two more in the seats, which disperse excess water. The Crossblade can also be supplied with a tonneau cover; this is stored in the surprisingly spacious and lockable trunk. But, of course, there's no protection for the occupants.
The Smart features a tiny 599cc, three-cylinder, turbocharged engine, which sits in the rear of the car, under the trunk, and is mated to a six-speed sequential gearbox. A fully automatic mode is also available, but this makes for jerky progress and is best avoided. For the Crossblade, the engine's power has been increased from the base model's 44 bhp to 70 bhp and there's 80 lb-ft of torque.
While it's still far from quick-0 to 62 mph takes 17.0 sec.-it's nippy about town. Fabulous 16-in. alloy wheels and larger tires provide additional grip compared with the Coupe, and the center of gravity has been lowered by 65mm, making it more nimble.