Minnier Than a Mini
Popular in Europe for many years (yeah, I know, so was Hasselhoff), the fuel-sipping smart car (they spell “smart” all lowercase), will be available for sale in the US come January ’08. But with traveling test-drive road shows hitting all 50 states this year, the invasion has already started. And, with over 30,000 gas-pump-sticker-shocked Americans placing a $99 online reservation to buy a smart fortwo (the model to be released in the US), apparently so has our love affair.
The smart USA team invited me and several other journalists to San Francisco last week to put the little bugger through its paces, up and down the winding mountain roads and SUV choked freeways between San Fran and San Jose. How do you pass up a chance to drive a car that looks like it could be used by by an elephant as a roller-skate during some twisted, 70’s disco-themed circus routine? You can’t. So I went. And it was surprising.
Here’s how it rated:
Overcompensation Quotient: -10.
If women believe guys drive huge Hummers and other large trucks to make up for what they’re lacking in other departments, then this car screams “I’m packing!”
The entire smart fortwo is a just a hair over 106″ (8.8 feet), from tip to tail. (Smaller than the wheelbase on typical SUVs.) It’s 5-feet 1-inches wide and just over 5-feet tall. That’s about three and a half feet shorter, 6-inches narrower, and 4.5-inches taller than the Mini Cooper. You can park it nose-in to a curb and not stick out farther than cars that are parallel parked. It’s as small as you can get without having “Matchbox” printed on the bottom. And ushers in a new class of car: the micro-compact.
Claustrophobia Inducement: None.
Here’s the strange thing – once you close the door to the fortwo you immediately forget you are riding in the smallest car on the road. (The fact that the seat position is as high as a “normal” sized car helps the illusion.) The interior space is said to be roomier than the Mercedes SLK., which I would agree with. I’ve squeezed my 6-foot, 185 pound frame into some tiny roadsters, and felt my shoulder press against the door while fighting for elbow room with my passenger. In the smart I felt like I was in an average sized car. In a big, comfortable seat that reminded me of Recaros. Plenty of head and leg room. It’s only when you turn around and see there’s no back end at all that you snap back into micro-reality.
Gadgetry: More than you expect.
The smart car was born out a collaboration between Swatch and Mercedes Benz. (The name “smart” comes from a blending of the words Swatch, Mercedes, and ART.) So there are some very unique and different features on the fortwo.
The dash has a retro-modern look, and the optional dashboard-mounted tach and analog clock grouping adds to the feel. The ignition switch is mounted just below the gear shift between the seats for that euro feel. The stereo comes with an in-dash 6-CD changer, and an AUX port to plug in your iPod.
Outside, the car’s strong plastic panels are all removable and changeable. Meaning a dent or scratch in one takes less than an hour to replace, inexpensively and without having to resort to the body shop. Get tired of the exterior color, or feel like adding some customization, and you can replace all the panels in about two hours.
Anti lock brakes and ESP (Electronic Stability Program) come standard. As do front dual-stage airbags, and side impact airbags.
An option on the “passion” model is a glass roof that gives the feel of a drop top, without the wind. A sliding cover keeps the sun out.
On the “passion cabriolet”, the power sliding convertible top runs along side rails, stopping at the glass rear window. Another press of the button and the whole top folds down, window and all. For that true “open” feeling, you can pop off those side rails and stow them in the trunk. (Yes, the car has a trunk. More on that in a minute.)
The smart also has an optional leather package with heated seats, but to me that’s like putting caviar on a hot dog.
Ballsy-ness: Better than you’d expect.
I was surprised here. The smart fortwo packs a 3-cylinder, 1.0 liter, 61 cubic-inch, ultra-low emissions engine that puts out 70 horses. That would seem anemic. But with a curb weight of 1,808 pounds, there’s not a lot for that rear-mounted engine to push. And the car will move. Eventually. (It’s 0-60 time is 12.8 seconds.)
The gear box is an automated manual five speed. What that means is there is a clutch, but no clutch pedal you have to push. And if you wanted to, you could shift into “drive” and just let the fortwo shift itself. This tranny is different than what we’re used to here in the States. It’s not your luxury, silky-shifting gear box. This one let’s you know it’s shifting. And you feel it. Every gear. Manually shifting takes away much of the “dolphin” lurches you can experience at low speeds.
I stomped on the gas much of the time, and can tell you the smart does have some pep. Climbing the hills, and whipping through the twists and turns, it had no problems. And at no time did it feel like I was going to lose the back end. (Mostly, because there’s no back end to lose.)
The top speed on the fortwo is rated at 90 mph. I had it about 10-20 MPH over legal on the freeway – depending on what you consider “legal” – just for test drive purposes, and only for a second, I swear, and the little fortwo hummed along without straining or swaying out of control.
Cargo Room: More than most roadsters.
You get an actual trunk in the fortwo, with 7.8 cubic feet of space to the belt line, and 12 cubic feet if you pack it to the roof. And to answer that all-important question: “Can you get golf clubs in it?”… Yes you can. You just need to take your driver and woods out first and angle them in after you put the bag in.
Manhood Security Factor: Too low to measure.
It is incredibly fun to drive. But you also have to be incredibly secure in your manhood to be behind the wheel of a car that is described by everyone who sees it as “so cute” every day.
On the other side, the LA Kings hockey team was staying at our hotel while in town to play the San Jose Sharks. They saw the smarts out front and spent some time asking about them and asking to have their pictures taken in front of them. And I’m not one to ever tell a pro hockey player that isn’t manly.
Babe Magnetism Index: Off the charts.
During a stop at Capitola Beach – and every other stop for that matter – women came up in droves to ask about the car and ask for a ride. I’ve driven some high-end sports cars around, and none of them got the type of reaction from women that the smart did.
Crash-Test Dummy Rating: Get up and walk away.
It’s the first question everyone had when they talked to us on the road: “Yeah, but is it safe?” The smart’s safety equipment was designed by the same engineers behind the Mercedes-Benz safety equipment. So, yeah, it’s safe.
Besides the airbags and ABS mentioned above, the fortwo has a specially designed “tridion safety cell” made to keep you in one piece during an accident. Without getting too technical, the tridion shell is similar to the cage used in race cars. It’s made of layers of reinforced steel, and can take a serious blow without deforming. They had a smart that had been hit in the rear to simulate a 50 mph impact by a larger car and surprisingly the damage was only to the trunk area. The two side doors were still able to be opened.
The other advantage with the smart is, because it’s so small, it’s 42% less likely to be hit. And it is designed, and is expected to get, a four-star crash test rating next year.
Eco-Friendliness: Al Gore would approve.
The smart gives off ultra-low emissions, gets incredible milage (somewhere in the 40-45 mpg range), and is made of materials that are 98% recyclable.
Overall Bang For the Buck: Tons.
The fortwo pure comes as basic as you can get, (manual locks and windows, no radio or a/c) and lists at $11,600. Step up to the passion and get power everything, the 6-CD changer, etc for $13,600. And for you open air lovers, the cabrio goes for just $15,600. Not a lot to pay for an attention-grabbing drop-top, with a trunk, that gets high mpg, and can be parked anywhere.
And with what you save at the pump, you’ll have plenty of cash left over to take those ride-desiring women to dinner. (Unfortunately you’ll have to take them one at a time.)
Perfect for: The young, hip, urban dweller who needs reliable, fun transportation that can be squeezed into any parking space. And who just can’t bear to buy a scooter.
From $11, 600
www.smartusa.com for more info, to pre-order, or to find a dealer.