California Autos Examiner

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Driving a smart fortwo For Several Days

“Oh, this is bad” quipped my wife as we took out the bright yellow, fully loaded, smart fortwo passion cabriolet for a spin around the block. The remark was aimed at the smart’s transmission and it’s probably the most controversial feature of this car. Many drivers are unfamiliar with the smart’s automated manual and find the way it shifts to be jarring. Admittedly the pause in forward momentum as the smart changes gears can be disconcerting, but when you think about what happens when you drive a manual transmission car then I think it becomes more understandable. It takes awhile for you to learn when the smart is going to do its shifting and until you do it’s going to be very noticeable. You can change things up and elect to use the paddle shifters to stir your own soup, but I saw no need to do so. The car’s automatic mode is definitely programmed for fuel economy so it does shift early and that will cause engine lugging that some folks find objectionable. I wasn’t bothered by the noise/vibration myself. The question is, can you see past the smart’s powertrain and into its soul?

You’ve probably read other reviews of the smart and how it attracts a crowd and I can vouch for the fact that even a half year after its introduction the car knows how to turn heads. I followed around Aston Martins, Maseratis, Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and the like in my time with the smart and no matter whether I was in Menlo Park or Half Moon Bay my little two seater received far more attention. Some people dig that kind of curiosity, other people are driven nuts by it. Can you handle temporary rock star status?

I reveled in the ability to absolutely own street parking. I parked the smart forwards, backwards, sideways and every which way just because I could. Little children would wave at me as I sneaked into spaces that their beleaguered parents couldn’t jam the family SUV into. Of course, I could share only my latest parking conquest with one passenger, but it still felt good. I could easily see a smart owner gaining a few pounds because he no longer had to walk any distance from where he parked to wherever he wanted to go. Is parking convenience important to you?

Let’s say you’re on a freeway, how does the car feel? Firstly, I never had any troubles merging on or off freeways. Certainly I wasn’t going to contest whether or not I zippered in front or behind another car, but I never caught myself shouting “Captain, I need more power!” The smart did get thrown around a bit by grooved pavement. At first I thought it was wind gusts, but it was actually the smart wiggling to the beat of I-280’s groovy concrete. Once I knew what was happening, I was okay with how the car was tracking the pavement. Speaking of wind, you will find that the boxy smart can suffer in strong crosswinds. For the three days I had the smart I was unable to find any extreme conditions to really test how the car does, but it’s a valid concern. If you are planning on commuting in the smart and cross any long bridges or windy sections of highway, you’re going to want to consider things carefully. The same thing goes for rough pavement. If Bott’s Dots are tattooed to your butt, you can imagine what potholes and sharp bumps feel like. The smart is so short, there’s just no escaping this bucking bronco effect. The highways and byways that I travel are relatively smooth, so except for a few speed bumps taken too fast and a road with tree root problems, I was comfortable. How well do your routes mesh with the smart’s capabilities and limitations?

You definitely don’t feel like you’re in a small car when piloting the smart down the road. Of course, when you look behind you and see that the driver in the car following you is where your backseat would be, then you realize just how short you are. I’m 5’10” and it was easy to get comfortable in the driver’s seat. My only gripe about the interior is the lack of a center armrest. I would definitely have to install an armrest if I purchased a smart. A small center console armrest would fit quite nicely where the parking brake is located. I’d shrink that big, mechanical brake handle down to an electronic button and make better use of the space. The control layout was serviceable and I liked the optional tach and clock pods. There is no cruise control available, something that may bother long distance commuters who have long, sparsely travelled distances to cover. The fabric covered dash was funky but I would worry about fading over the long haul. I'd like to see factory navigation and Bluetooth options. Wouldn’t the Garmin sourced, removable unit that Suzuki is throwing in gratis with the SX4 be a great application for the smart?

Cargo hauling in the smart was limited to stocking up on window fans for next season. I managed to load up eight of the bulky boxes, but it would have been a challenge to carry any more. I would have liked the cargo area to have flip up dividers or some other way of managing loads back there. My Frosted Mini-Wheats went flying as I zipped back to the house from the grocery store—not a big deal, but when you’re piloting a car called “smart” you expect to see innovative solutions. The smart does feature a grippy cupholder in front of the shifter, but sometimes the soft rubber portion of the cupholder comes along for the ride and separates from the mother ship—that can prove inconvenient when speeding down the highway. Given the size of the car, I was happy enough with the space provided. Can you live within the confines of a small two-seater car?

My final day with the smart was a glorious weather day. With blue sky and temps in the low 70s, it was a beautiful reminder why I moved here in the first place. I dropped the cabriolet top and driver’s window and cruised 65MPH down the freeway. Halfway to my destination, I wondered why my cheek muscles were hurting. Suddenly I realized that I had been smiling for the past 20 miles and not even noticed it. Here I was, driving a $19k car with so many knocks against it and I was simply having a great time. I wouldn’t recommend an impulse buy of this car unless you have the means to acquire it as an accessory. If you are going to rack up serious miles, then you need to really do some soul searching on whether or not this unique automobile is right for you. The smart does have limitations and oddball characteristics that my either endear or push you away. Whether or not the smart is for you really depends on the cloth from which you are cut.


Doug said...

It's been about 15 years now, but I once had a car made by GM that was somewhat small by then standards, but by no means as small as Smart. It had a 2.3l 4 cylinder engine. Again, by todays standards, "old school", but back then it was fairly advanced technologically. It had a comfortable back seat and a great sized trunk. I would have to defer the parking crown to Smart, but would gladly do so in trade for the above mentioned conveniences. Fuel economy was stellar. I never got less than 30 dinking around town, and I got 35 to 37 mpg hwy depending on how I drove it, and yes it was fun to drive. This was 15 years ago. The car had economy AND function. I can't deny the uniqueness and novelty of a car like Smart, but it sure seems like all these car companies are spending way too much money trying to "invent" something that we had around a decade and a half ago. You'll convince me to get a car again when that combination of economy and function are really put into a vehicle. Style is really the only thing these cars have going for them today. MAybe we should get some of that "retro technology" mated to todays styling instead of the other way around. I'd put that car up against anything Toyota or Honda, or GM or Ford for that matter, has today.

rwcmick said...

Hey Doug,

Well there are several things that have transpired in the last 15 that have prevented that kind of mileage in cars. Firstly, cars (even small ones) have become much heavier thanks to increased safety equipment and more robust crash performance. Just look at the crash tests from the 80's and early 90's and compare them to the the corresponding model today and you'll see a world of difference.

However, that doesn't explain things fully. The bottom line is that advances in technology for the most part have been used to enhance performance of cars offered here in our market. The mantra for "more power" has been loud and clear for years and that has been where r&d dollars have been spent. However, look for things to change very soon. You're going to see direct injection and turbo charging shrink the displacement sizes of engines while reasonable performance levels are maintained. That means you'll get 40+ mpg on the highway in the Cobalt replacement and it won't be a complete slug. Pair those technologies with HCCI and stop/start "micro hybrids" and you'll see an even bigger boost.