Sunday, January 20, 2008

Pansy gets smart!

The smart car has finally arrived in the States, 10 years after its debut in Europe and just in time for gasolines threat to hit four dollars per gallon. For the past month or so, the Mercedes dealership across the street from my charming hovel in Beverly Hills has had the former Maybach side of the dealerships windows blocked off with black plastic, the past week the plastic was down revealing that crowding the Maybach area into a corner was the blinding white smart center (note, the lack of caps is theirs, not mine), looking a bit like a cross between the Apple store and the set of Moonbase Alpha. The first time I went in (on Friday) I was roundly ignored; I don't know if it was a Saturn-like no-pressure sales experience or what. I decided to try again on Sunday and just baldly ask for a test drive.

First impressions:

This is a tiny car. It's just a touch under nine feet long, making it only about a foot longer than a Cadillac Escalade is wide. It literally can be parked butt to curb (as shown above), although this feature might be frowned upon by your local parking district. Once inside, you sit high up and the interior is suprisingly spacious, if not kitted out with the most high quality materials. I drove the top-of-the-line passion cabrio which was fitted with optional heated leather seats, tachometer and clock and upscale radio. The tach and clock are pods mounted on stalks on the dash, the radio has a 5=disc changer and promises iPod plug-in (which I didn't see). There is also the passion coupe, which trades the cabrios canvas top (which includes a glass rear window and operates at speed) for a clear polycarbonate roof with a sunshade, and the pure coupe, which is sort of the stripper model: air conditioning is optional on the pure. I think I would prefer the cloth seats to the leather, I think they are more in keeping with the utilitarian feeling of this transportation pod of a car. With the top down there's not a lot of wind noise, since the sail panels are fixed.

I didn't have the chance to drive it with the roof bars removed like in the picture, but with those stowed I am sure that you get a bit more of the convertible experience. There is storage behind the seats that's decently sized for such a small car- say four bags of groceries or a couple of duffel bags for a weekend away.

Power is provided by a three cylinder, one liter engine that feels peppier than its stated 12 second zero-to-sixty time would make you think. There is a rather odd transmission that the (very young) sales lady inadequately tried to explain: not a true automatic, it's more of a manual with a computer that they refer to as an "Automated Manual". If you are used to driving a stick as I am I think it feels a bit more natural to back off the gas when the transmission shifts (although you'll want to go for the clutch), if not then I think the learning curve is going to be steeper. In any case it's something that people are going to have to get used to. Gas mileage is stated at 33 city/40 highway and according to their website, premium unleaded is required. The car handles fine, at least it did on the course around the block that my test-drive entailed. I hope that ZipCar gets some of these so that I could spend a couple of hours in one rather than the 15 minutes I think I got.

Do I think they'll sell? I don't know. They are charming in a way that instantly captivating; I had to stop traffic on busy Beverly Boulevard to back into the space I had taken off from and even jaded, horn-happy Angelenos let me do it, including the driver of an MTA #14 bus who opened the door to tell us how cute he thought it was. (Wallflowers and professional sourpusses be warned; you might want to stick to that Corolla) People wondering about the safety of this little pod of a car take heart- it has a full complement of airbags, ABS, Stability Control and something called the "tridion safety cell", a super-stiff cage enclosing the passengers. European crash-test show it holding up fine against an off-set head-on with an S-Class. We'll have to wait to see what NHTSA and the Insurance Institute have to say about that, the smart hasn't been crash-tested here yet.

What I don't know is whether the cars specs versus some other small cars will cause cooler heads to prevail. USA Today compares the smart ForTwo against the Toyota Yaris and the comparison is telling: the Toyota is faster and cheaper, only gives up about 4 MPG in both city and highway mileage, takes regular gas, has a proper backseat and has 13.7 cubic feet of storage space to the smarts 7.8 (12 if you pack it to the roof). The other downside is that I am relatively sure that I can maunder into Santa Monica Toyota with $13000 and drive off the lot with a new Yaris. To get the smart, I have to log onto their website, "configure" my car, put down a refundable $99 fee and wait. According to the salesperson at smart center Beverly Hills, that wait is eight months. That's eight months to consider a lot of other contenders that deliver 8/10ths the cute quotient with 200 percent the usability. It's also eight months to see whether this car tanks in the market.

Bottom line?

Upside: It is cute as a button; it's perfect if you live in a city like New York and have the money to keep a car there. Great if you are a single person and have no need to either take a friend to the airport or take a trip to Costco. The smart could be a wonderful second car for people to have to buzz around town, and for at least the first year you will be the coolest thing on four teensy wheels.

Downside: The smart is sort of half of a Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit for more money; it looks like it should deliver great gas mileage but doesn't do that much better then the aforementioned Yaris, since the price difference between premium and regular unleaded neatly negates the better gas mileage of the smart, at least here in Los Angeles, what with premium skimming the $4 per gallon mark. It really should have been brought in as a diesel (as it is in Canada) or a hybrid.

Frankly, the smart seems more than a fashion statement than a true alternative to other small cars that are less of a trade-off, and I think they are making a fundamental error in having such a long wait to get the cars to the buyers; there's a brief window when this can be the "it" car.

Of course, if one shows up for my birthday, I don't think you could chisel the grin off my face.

Yellow passion cabrio please..

images: my cell phone,, my cell phone

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