From there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere. – Dr. Seuss
Of course I had a smart car – for seven years – and yes, it was a real car. A 1 liter, 3 cylinder, 70 horsepower, 1,800 lb. real car with plastic body panels and a retractable roof that my son Josh and I drove 3,700 miles to Vail and back one week and, along the way, saw the world’s largest prairie dog -but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning…
If you’re someone who notices cars (and possibly photographs them incessantly, and maybe even posts them to blogs) then interesting cars are like bright lights on a dark summer night – and you are the moth that is drawn to them. You read about some new car and suddenly you see it everywhere. It was that way with the smart fortwo (always lowercase!). This is known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. I remember seeing my first smart cars in the US in 2005 in California. The smart was not yet officially sold in the United States, but ZAP, a company known for its electric vehicles, began importing them through the gray market and selling them for $25,000 to $35,000.
I give smart a lot of credit for thinking outside the box. The car was designed to be a small, stylish city car that could be easily maneuvered and parked in congested European cities. The first generation cars, internally designated the 450, were short enough in length to park head-first toward the curb. The car was constructed as a unitized safety cell with plastic panels for the body. They were designed to be easily manufactured as well. The first generation cars were produced from 1998 to 2007.
The second generation cars, designated 451, were introduced in 2008. They were slightly larger than their predecessors and designed to allow smart to introduce the cars into more markets. When Mercedes announced in 2007 that they would begin officially selling the cars in 2008 I signed up. I went on-line, paid a $99 deposit and configured the car exactly as I wanted it. Mine was the passion model – a step above the base trim, and would be a cabrio with the electrically operated canvas roof that could retract to sunroof position or be fully lowered. As well, when the top was fully lowered removable roof sidebars could be stored in the trunk. I ordered mine in silver with a the Tridion Safety Cell painted in black. The cabrio was $3,000 more than the fixed roof so all in the price was about $19,000.
The first U.S. smarts were delivered in early 2008. Due to a long waiting list mine did not arrive until July. I knew exactly when it was arriving as I could electronically track my car’s progress from the time it left the Smartville factory in Hambach, France until it was unloaded at the Port of Baltimore.
Like all smarts mine had a five speed automated manual transmission. That meant no clutch pedal and the car could be driven like an automatic. Those familiar with the car know that this was its biggest fault. The automatic shifts were slow, slow, slow and very noticeable in comparison to a conventional automatic.
The alternative was to manually shift the car using either the shift lever on the floor or the steering wheel paddles included at the passion level. It took a while to make the transition, but I ultimately became a paddle person. Now the average shift time for a traditional manual transmission is 500 milliseconds to 1 second. Ferrari’s paddle shifters make the switch in about 100 milliseconds. In the Smart the shift time using the paddle shifts is a very deliberate “1 Mississippi”. It works best if you let up slightly on the gas the way you would with a true manual. Once you understand that, the shifting if fine.
I know a lot of dyed-in-the-wool manual transmission folks don’t care for paddles. I’ve accepted them, but by the time I get another car with paddle shifters it will probably have enough torque that shifting in normal circumstances will be a waste of time. C’est la vie.
I took delivery and the following weekend made my first smart road trip to a music festival in Ohio – a round trip distance of about 900 miles. When you first drive a smart on the highway you have the perception that 65 mph or so is about all it will comfortably do. As a result, you can easily achieve over 40 mpg. Eventually you realize the car is equally at home well north of 75 mph, but the cost is several miles per gallon. Given my driving habits my mileage settled into a range of mid to upper thirties on the highway and low thirties in town.
The car was fun to drive – especially around town where it’s short wheelbase made it seem more like a go cart. To fully experience the drop-top I developed a rule. If the temperature was over 50 degrees Farenheit and you could put the roof down, then you must put the roof down.
Inside there was plenty of room for the two passengers. An upright sitting position and a high roof provided enough room that I never found anyone who felt cramped in the car, including my son Josh who had recently shot up to 6’ 3”.
Some days the smart seemed very big…
And some days it seemed very small.
Naturally there were some aftermarket additions made. The car was susceptible to cross winds and the front end did not feel planted. The stock wheels were 4.5 x 15 inches in the front and 5.5 x 15 inches in the rear. I purchased a set of genius wheels (smart car, genius wheels – get it?) made specifically for the smart and its French heritage three bolt pattern hubs. 5.5 inches all around and plus size tires vastly improved the stability and there were no clearance or handling issues.
Bushing were upgraded on the front end eliminating the ‘clunk’ associated with average road hazards. A K&N air filter and a very loud free flow exhaust were installed. The very loud free flow exhaust was removed and replaced with a slightly less loud free flow exhaust. Lizard skin sound deadening was added to further quiet things.
Which brings us to the trip to Vail. My son Josh was now seventeen and heading to college in a couple of weeks. Like many kids these days he had been indifferent about getting his license. In Maryland one of the requirements is 60 hours of supervised driving outside of required drivers’ education classes. Eighteen months after getting his learner’s permit he was still 35 hours short so one morning in August he and I got in the car and started driving to Colorado. We would split up the driving but make sure he got his 35 hours in.
We took three days each way. Day one was Maryland to Ohio to stay with Josh’s grandparents – a distance of about 450 miles. Day two was Ohio to Olathe, Kansas (suburban Kansas City) – 700 miles. Day three was Olathe to Vail – another 700 miles.
If you’ve ever driven from Eastern Kansas to the Rocky Mountains you know there is a lot of not much on the trip. Leaving Olathe early in the morning and merging on to Westbound Interstate 70 the GPS informed us our next turn was in 522 miles.
A long time later we finally hit Denver and the last couple of hours through the mountains, top down of course, were a hoot. We rested one day in Vail and turned around for the trip home.
Once more we found ourselves on the long flat stretch between Colorado and Kansas. There were many, many signs for roadside attractions but the one that caught our eye was for the World’s largest prairie dog in Oakely, Kansas. The fenced off area next to the highway was stocked full of prairie dog chuck holes and tiny prairie dogs were everywhere. There were also ducks, exotic birds and even snakes. Finally, at the back we saw the promised behemoth. At that moment my life was complete.
A day and a half later, in Ohio, Josh was driving at nightfall with about an hour of travel left. Without warning he pulled the car over to the side of the ride and got out. He informed me that he had now completed his 60 hours and would not be driving any more on this trip – and he didn’t!
I drove the smart from 2008 until I sold it this past November. The car was as practical as any two-seater can be. There were many more road trips and even a rally. I drove it a little over 70,000 miles. Most of the time the top was down. The car proved reliable, but had just enough Mercedes DNA that parts and service were a little more than might have been expected. I listed the car on ebay with the hopes that it would find an owner who appreciated it as much as I did. I had the good fortune to sell it to Benoit in Florida who had owned several smarts and in fact made custom leather interiors for them. On a brisk Fall morning the transporter turned onto my street and the little beast was ferried away to its new home.
Next week – Something practical for the wife…
Last week – The Strange Case of Dr. Subie Wagon and Mr. WRX