IF YOU thought smart was a manufacturer which only made silly-sized, odd-looking city runabouts, then think again.

The German firm, which is a subsidiary of manufacturing giant Mercedes-Benz, has thrown the small car rulebook out of the window and come up with a fantastic two-seater.

Launched last year, the smart roadster and roadster-coup break the mould.

Combining turbo-charged engines with rear-wheel drive handling, they have all the right credentials and come with an appealing price tag to boot.

However, not wanting to rest on its laurels, the German giant has handed the miniature motor to its in-house tuning firm Brabus.

The equivalent of rival BMW's M-Power workshop, which makes the awesome M3 and M5, Brabus is renown for shoehorning massive powerplants into standard machines.

Here, the engineers have worked heavily on the roadster's styling and added some more horsepower under the bonnet.

The three-cylinder, turbo-charged 698cc unit has been injected with 20bhp more, upping output from 80 to 101bhp.

This means that, where the standard machine can lack a little initial punch out of corners, the Brabus-tuned motor picks up its heels, bites the Tarmac hard and fires you down the road.

The engine sounds superb too. Our test car was fitted with a rotary, twin-exit exhaust, which barked as the revs rose, while every gear change was accompanied by a chirp from the turbo's waste gate - all adding to the sportscar feel.

Grip levels are simply outstanding and more than make up for the fact that acceleration isn't exactly mind-blowing.

The nought-to-60mph time of 9.6secs may sound a little slow, but on the road it translates to a surprisingly exhilarating rise. Couple this with a bum-on-the-Tarmac driving position and awesome road holding and you won't want more power.

The smart gearbox has been the subject of much discussion among car lovers in recent years.

The semi-automatic setup, which lets users swap cogs using a lever or F1-style paddles, was lambasted for a jerky and slow to respond shift when the model first hit our streets.

This has been improved, but still takes practice to get absolutely perfect.

The roadster Brabus is bristling with safety aids too - traction control, ABS and EBD are all standard on the machine.

The firm's tuning arm has also worked its magic on the exterior.

Although only subtle changes, the spoilers, side skirts and radiator grill have all been given a makeover.

At £16,695 the Brabus is a little expensive, but you'll be hard pressed to find a car more unique for the money.

For details, call smart of Basingstoke on 01256 483900.