Going small: A Smart driving experience

July 19, 2008 7:51:47 PM PDT
Sometimes, I guess, timing is everything. When DaimlerChrysler AG announced in 2006 that it planned to bring the Smart fortwo micro car to the United States after nearly a decade in Europe, gas prices had reached about $2.80 a gallon. Now, Americans are paying more than $4 a gallon at the pump, SUV sales are plummeting and consumers are hungry for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The little Smart has been riding a wave of consumer interest, attracting thousands of car shoppers willing to put down $99 and wait about nine months for the two-seater. So when I sat in the driver's seat of a blue Smart fortwo last week, turned, and touched the back window with my finger tips, I had to wonder: Do Americans really want to go this small?

Without question, the pint-sized, whimsical Smart makes a statement.

At a traffic light near the Washington Monument, a group of school kids clad in blue T-shirts cheered when they walked past the car. One boy whipped out his digital camera. When I drove up 14th Street, a young girl screamed, "Nice car. Woo-hoo!" Near a construction site, a group of workers in green hard hats and reflective vests huddled around the car to take a closer look.

"They're making the space age come real quick!" exclaimed another man, who pulled over in his SUV to ask me about the pod-shaped car.

Friends and colleagues had their doubts and wondered how I would handle the highway. No car can repeal the laws of physics, and at 1,800 pounds, they said the Smart would be no match for a big truck.

The fortwo received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top rating in front- and side-impact testing, and it's equipped with standard side air bags, anti-rollover technology and a reinforced steel cage structure, but the car is dwarfed by the competition. So when I merged onto the Washington Beltway at the tail end of rush hour, I saw their point - in the form of a massive tractor trailer bearing down on me.

I hit the brakes and stayed in the merge lane as the truck blew past me and then steadily (the fortwo does zero-to-60 mph in 12.8 seconds) drove into suburban Maryland. Even when I surpassed 70 mph at times, I felt comfortable.

This is not a car built for a quick getaway, however. I can't imagine Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron outrunning the bad guys in a fleet of Smarts, like they did aboard Mini Coopers in the 2003 remake of "The Italian Job."

And the 70-horsepower, 1-liter, three-cylinder engine felt somewhat lacking as I was left in the dust, simultaneously, by a Honda Civic on my left and a Saturn SL on my right.

But most car shoppers want to use the Smart's size to their advantage. In a town where finding a parking spot can turn into a 30-minute Tour de DuPont Circle, the Smart offered instant attraction.

The vehicle is so tiny - its length of 8 feet, 10 inches is about three feet shorter than a Mini Cooper - that it could easily fit tight parking spots. The sight of a fortwo parked in a space marked for "compact only" vehicles evokes laughter.

I could even turn into the curb at a right angle and not worry about the back sticking out into the street.

It gets good gas mileage, about 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 mpg on the highway. While it lags behind hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic hybrid, it gets better gas mileage than larger compact competitors like the Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit, but not by much.

I found the transmission could be sluggish and halting at times, sometimes jerking the car forward as it shifted between gears. It occasionally struggled to muster up the strength to climb hills, and even with its suspension, I could feel practically every bump on the road.

The Smart does have a surprising amount of interior space. I'm about 6 feet tall and had plenty of head and legroom. It sits higher on the road than most passenger cars and the sunroof gave me the feeling of a larger interior.

Even without a national advertising campaign, Smart has sold 11,399 vehicles in the U.S. through June and helped boost Daimler's U.S. sales last month. The fortwo is within the reach of most car shoppers. A basic version will cost more than $12,000. A convertible costs more than $17,000.

The company says it has more than 30,000 customers on a waiting list and about 80 percent are buying when they reach the front of the line.

This is not a family car or the best set of wheels for a weekend trip to Home Depot or Sam's Club. But for people wanting a fuel-efficient second or third car, empty-nesters who no longer need to haul around children or city dwellers, it's worth a look.

If nothing else, you'll certainly spark conversations - and maybe more.

When I pulled out of a downtown garage one afternoon, a young man paused to admire the car with his girlfriend. She tilted her head, looked at the Smart like it was a puppy and smiled. As I drove off, she grabbed her boyfriend's hand, planted a kiss on his cheek and they walked off arm-in-arm.

A car that's a prelude to a kiss. I mean, did the Yugo ever have this kind of effect on people?


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