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My (Smart) Weekend Getaway
Story and photos by Jil McIntosh
Toronto, Ontario – Okay, so we’re stopped at the light, and what should pull up beside us but this massive Volkswagen Beetle.
You laugh. Well, when you’re sitting in a Smart, everything’s huge. Motorcycles. Bicycles. Pedestrians. Which doesn’t explain why we decided to drive it 350 kilometres on a road trip, but it does give you an idea of what it’s like to wear your car.
The trip was through the generosity of Journeys of Discovery (www.journeysofdiscovery.ca), an alliance of Ontario heritage sites. They wanted to send us to Ottawa, but my butt has its limits when faced with a commuter car’s seats. So we decided on Cambridge, and found out there’s a lot more than just African Lion Safari.
Smart, in case you missed it at the Auto Show, is Mercedes’ micro car. Already popular in Europe, they’ll be here in the fall. They’re expected to start around $16,000 – the tax on a big Benz. Sure, you can get compact cars with more features and a back seat for less money, but Smart’s way-cool factor is priceless.
Introverts need not apply. People stare. They ask questions – the most common being, “Is it electric or hybrid?” (The answer: a 0.8-litre, 3-cylinder turbo diesel.) They come off the sidewalk to look inside. Other drivers stare so much we were sure we were going to cause a collision.
We headed out on Highway 5, toward Flamborough, where we stopped at – where else? – the Tiny Shop fruit market for a snack. Smart is surprisingly roomy inside. Unless I looked out the back window – and it takes a while to get used to headlights being right behind your head – it feels just like driving a Toyota Echo. It’s not as noisy as expected, and my car had air, power windows and locks, a very nice stereo and a glass roof.
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At a light in Waterdown, a transport driver jumped out of his cab to look at us. When other cars spin doughnuts in the snow, will Smart just do a Timbit?
We headed up Highway 8, and in Cambridge turned northwest toward the village of Blair, along a road that followed the banks of the Grand River. All too often we travel great distances to admire foreign scenery, and forget that we have such incredibly beautiful areas within an afternoon’s drive of Toronto.
In Blair, we turned up the long, tree-lined drive to Langdon Hall. Finished in 1902, the massive house was a summer residence for John Jacob Astor’s great-grandson. Today, it’s an inn and spa, complete with restaurant, lounge and tea room. If the tiny Smart looked odd parked alongside Langdon Hall’s enormous columns, this hard-nosed journalist probably seemed likewise enjoying cucumber sandwiches and Oolong tea. But it’s actually an incredibly pleasant way to spend an afternoon. And the little chocolate “opera cakes” were fantastic.
Cambridge is a conglomeration of four older towns: Blair, Hespeler, Preston and the downtown core, originally named Galt. Cruising its streets, we discovered Automobilia, at 105 Hespeler Road. Originally a Studebaker dealership and B/A gas station, this store is now crammed with diecast cars (just like our house is). While we were inside, three people came up and asked to sit in the Smart. I should charge for rides.
Smart isn’t intended for long-distance travel, although it’s quite capable of it. It’s a city car, dead-simple to park and meant for narrow streets. Its “trunk” measures 38 cm by 97 cm, more than enough for an overnight bag. And the passenger seat folds flat for extra storage.
I was tempted to use it when we stopped at Southworks Outlet Mall. C’mon, I’m a woman born with the shopping gene. So were a lot of people; this mall gets a million visitors each year, most of them tourists. It’s housed in a riverside foundry built of local limestone in 1844. Today, the main floor is an outlet mall; upstairs is 850 square metres of antiques dealers. I wanted a wild Art Deco floor lamp, but settled for a more easily transported commemorative glass. The Designated Passenger already drew dibs on the foldable seat and I didn’t have the heart to leave him behind. Smart sells a four-seater in Europe, but for now, be prepared to travel light.
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We also discovered a longtime friend working in the mall. His bemused expression was one of the four Smart seems to produce, along with incredulous, envious, and “I’m buying one!” One driver asked if I was worried about being hit by a larger car. After telling him I didn’t want to get hit in any car, I also pointed out that Smart has a lot more metal than a motorcycle. And it’s passed crash tests.
Coming home, Smart handled highway speeds just fine. Tractor-trailers aren’t quite as intimidating as you’d think, because it drives bigger than it is. It also went 220 kilometres on $7.50 – 4.5 litres/100 km, earning its name honestly.
I still don’t know if I’d want to drive straight out to Ottawa without a couple of stops to stretch and walk around. But a few hundred kilometres, an overnight bag, and this cute little micro car – now there’s a smart deal.