Click image to enlarge
By Jil McIntosh
Photos by Paul Williams
Into a world where people drive Hummers and Navigators from the condo to the office comes a smart alternative. And its goofy name doesn’t begin to describe just how intelligent it really is.
Built by Mercedes – although it will probably be marketed as a stand-alone entity, as BMW does with Mini – Smart (the company prefers lower-case)(but I don’t – ed.) will leave its European home and show up for sale in Canada in September. Prices are expected to start around $16,000.
Although Europe gets a four-seater – and the U.S. will get an “SUV” version when it arrives there in 2006, of course – our initial choices will be the “Fortwo” two-seater models, in coupe or folding-top cabriolet, and in basic (Pure), sporty (Pulse) or luxury (Passion). I spent a week in the “Pulse Fortwo cdi”. That included air conditioning, power windows and AM/FM/CD stereo.
The “cdi” stands for common-rail direct-injection diesel. It’s a three-cylinder, 799 cc version, stashed under the back storage compartment and driving the rear wheels. At 40 hp and 74 ft-lb of torque, it doesn’t sound like much, but then it doesn’t have a lot of car to push around. While it isn’t a race car, the Smart is more than capable of holding its own in traffic, even at 120 km/hr on the highway, especially if you eschew the fuel-saver “Automatic” mode in favour of revving it up via its six-speed, clutchless sequential transmission.
Around 3,000 rpm, it’s smooth, surprisingly quiet, and more spirited than you’d expect.
It’s tempting to judge the Smart by its appearance, but don’t let it fool you. I let dozens of skeptics sit in it, and even the 6-foot-5 ones came away believers. Due to its height and its pushed-to-the-corners wheel stance, the Smart offers incredible interior room. Its rear storage area is only 38 cm by 97 cm (15 inches x 38 inches), but I still brought home two cases of bottled water and six bags of groceries in it. If you’re alone, you can fold the passenger seat flat to carry extra cargo.
The next question, after “Is it electric?” was, “What about if you get hit?” Hey, it’s got more metal than a motorcycle, and people drive those fearlessly. It passes crash tests, protecting its occupants with a steel cage. Come to think of it, that’s what Indy cars use, and those drivers walk away from smash-ups at speeds that the Smart can only dream about.
It takes about a minute of driving before you forget how small the Smart really is. It feels like you’re driving a Toyota Echo. About the only learning curve is the back window, which is right behind your head. Even if a car is a safe distance behind you, it still feels like it’s breathing down your neck when you look in the triangular rear-view mirror. Once you get over that, you don’t want to park the thing. The Smart needs good mileage because you tend to go the long way home.
Oddly, many other drivers (especially the SUV crowd) want to pick it apart, and they focus entirely on what the Smart can’t do. No, it’s no good for families, or people with three Great Danes, or those who regularly haul cellos. But that’s like saying a pencil has no value because you can’t use it to send email. The Smart is a commuter car: dead-simple to park, dirt-cheap to run, and made for the city.
Ironically, its Achilles heel is its city breeding; it can be tough to find diesel in urban areas. And you quickly learn to park at the edge of mall spaces. Put it up against the curbstone, and someone might swoop into what they think is an empty spot. But then, you could always park a second Smart behind it.
Fun, comfortable and custom-made for crowded city centres, the Smart looks like it’s going to be a winner. But the essential question remains: When conventional cars turn doughnuts in the snow, will the tiny Smart just spin a Timbit?