By Rich Helms
I didn’t realize how my driving would change when my editor called me on Feb 10, 2004 and said, “Mercedes just announced the Smart car.“ An email to the local dealer and a fax the next day, and I had a Smart ForTwo cabrio on order. In October, I got to drive one for the first time and select the features I wanted. Then on Jan 2005, almost 11 months later, I took delivery of my green-on-green Smart cabrio.
In the last two years, I have driven over 65,000 kilometers (40,400 miles), visited 19 states and written many articles on Smart. In November 2006, I got to see the new Smart ForTwo that will come to Canada in October 2007 and the US in the first quarter of 2008. So what is it like living with an 8.5 foot long, 1,675 pound, 40 hp diesel, two-seater car? It’s been a blast.
Even with Smarts being available in Canada since September 2004, I still get stopped at gas stations and parking lots by people with questions.
The power train is an 800cc three cylinder diesel with a six-speed sequential transmission. The tranny is not a traditional automatic or manual, but an automated manual transmission (AMT). It has a dry clutch under computer control and no clutch pedal. Shifting gears is done by a console shifter, steering wheel paddles on the Pulse (sport) model, or under computer control with the automatic option. While the small diesel engine produces only 40 hp, it creates a credible 74 lb-ft of torque. With a top speed of 135 kph (84 mph), highway speeds are no problem. I can hold 70 mph in the mountains of West Virginia. With such a short wheelbase (71.34 inches), the steering is adapted to avoid twitchiness.
With the engine under the back floor and no trunk, the interior is surprisingly large. A 6 ½ foot-tall driver fits, no problem. All models except the most basic have a glass roof or are convertibles. Combine this with the forward windshield and large windows, and the feeling of space is enhanced. The ride is firm, but the seats are very supportive.
People often ask me why travel in a Smart? I enjoy the challenge of having to pack carefully, the reactions from others on the road, and the economy. I drove to Arkansas, then Tennessee and back to Ontario (over 5,000 km or 3,000 miles) for $210 during Hurricane Katrina. At the time, fuel was over $3.00 per gallon. In Arkansas, I had jeers as I cut in line, until they realized I was backing up to the diesel pump that no one was using.
But the most fun traveling in a Smart car is refueling. The best spot to get diesel fuel in the US is truck stops. They have the best fuel prices, usually good food, large, clean restrooms and a variety of interesting people. I pulled into one bay where the tractor-trailer truck in front of me had just put in $234. The Smart can fill from a large truck nozzle if you are careful. I put in $14 as I was way down, and the fuel was $3.30 per gallon. When I went in to pay, a man who had driven in a gigantic SUV asked, “Why would you drive such a tiny car?” I explained, “It’s psychological. I’m compensating for an enormous penis.“ He ran off before I could ask him what he drove. The man behind the counter choked on his coffee, he was laughing so hard.
Even as Smart cars become more common, my car’s bright green exterior makes it in demand for Santa Claus parades. For this purpose, I made a six-foot Santa hat out of red felt, fake fur, Velcro and Christmas lights. This year we added a bike rack and a pocket motorbike with a stuffed Grinch “driving“ and Max the dog on the handlebars.
Where to park my Smart at home opened the door to another outrageous opportunity. Parking it in my double-car garage is such a waste of space. The answer was to build a ten-foot square “shed.“ Not many sheds have an electric garage door opener, ceiling fan to dry the car, and stained-glass side door. The most interesting part of building proved to be how to tell when I have pulled the car forward enough that the garage door will close. As the Smart is 8.5 feet long and the 10-foot length of the garage includes the walls, I need to park about four inches from the back wall. I posted the problem on ClubSmartCar.ca and got many responses: a hanging tennis ball (not accurate enough), sonar, laser. The list was endless, but the answer was so simple. Mount a mirror at 45 degrees so that you look down as you pull in. Parking one or two inches from the wall is trivial now.
I’ve heard it a hundred times: “I would hate to get hit in that small car.“ My flip answer is, “What would you like to get hit in?“ The Smart is actually an amazing car in an accident. I interviewed the senior engineer of Transport Canada who did the crash tests. He explained that there are three parts to a crash: avoidance, surviving and extraction. The Smart has anti-lock as well as panic brakes. An electronic stability program sensor detects when the Smart is about to swerve, instantly applies the brakes to individual wheels, and adjusts engine power to stabilize the car. Hill Holder and traction control round off the active safety systems. All of this helps avoid the crash.
To help the driver and passengers survive the crash, Smart has front and side airbags. The vehicle body is boron-steel “Tridion Safety Cell“ covered with colored plastic panels. As the car is so light and the cage so strong, the Smart tends to push into the other car before bouncing off. To see this happen, watch the Smart go head-on with a Mercedes E320 at TheSmart.ca (Canada Smart Car Site). While there have been a number of serious accidents involving large SUVs hitting Smart cars in Canada, no serious injuries have occurred.
The final element of a crash is extraction of the people involved. In most accidents, including the famous British magazine test of a Smart striking a concrete barrier at 70 mph, the doors have still worked. On the website, Smart even publishes the “Guidelines for Rescue Services” document for rescuers.
Another comment I often hear is about not being able to carry anything. I drove to Wal-Mart recently for a few small items. While strolling through the store, a grandfather clock I have wanted was on a final clearance, and I couldn’t resist it. The box for the disassembled clock weighed 45 pounds and was 38″ x 22″ x 14.” You should have seen the reaction from people when I wheeled it up to my Smart car. I lowered the passenger seat and slid it in. My wife cracked up when I drove home with a grandfather clock in the car.
I’ve always loved small cars, but I never expected to own such a small one. In June 2005, a dozen Smart car owners went to Micro North. In a sea of Messerschmitts and Isettas, our Smart cars were the limos. At a local store I parked beside a new Austin Mini. The driver asked me why I bought a Smart. I replied that I had looked at the Mini, bit I just wasn’t into big cars. He laughed and said, “I don’t hear that very often.“
In Nov 2006, I attended the media release of the new generation Smart ForTwo in Stuttgart, Germany. While the current ForTwo has evoked an almost cult-like following, selling more than 750,000 worldwide since 1998, some aspects of the vehicle have proven an acquired taste. The goal of designing the 2008 car was to deliver a completely new vehicle that preserves what customers love about the current Smart. While the exterior is recognized as a ForTwo, it is not cartoonish anymore. The diesel engine was brought to Canada, as it was easier to pass the pollution standards. The 2008 Smart will have a 1-liter gas engine from 61 to 84 bhp. A diesel engine is available in Europe, but it needs changes to meet the current North American pollution requirements. The transmission is a 5-speed AMT but shifts significantly faster than the current one.
With the clock and tachometer pods, the new interior is recognizable as a Smart, but to accommodate requirements for knee safety during an unseat-belted accident, the dash is straight and angular. The “biggest“ change is the trunk. The area behind the seats has increased from 150 (132 quart) to 220 (194 qt) liters, with a capacity of 340 (300 qt) liters if you pack to the roof. Heating and air conditioning is greatly improved and includes temperature control with the AC.
The new Pulse and Passion coupes will come with a large 1.1 square meter (11.8 sq ft) polycarbonate roof. Half of this roof is transparent, and to demonstrate the strength, a video was shown of a BMX bicycle rider doing jumps on the roof and then riding down the car. The new cabrio roof fully opens automatically in 14 seconds, and can open or close while driving on the freeway.
After the announcement was over and all the interviews completed, I stopped Dr. Dieter Zetsche, President of DaimlerChrysler, who looked tired from what I am sure was a long day. I said, “You know you can’t call this a Smart anymore?“
Zetsche stopped dead in his tracks and frowned as he asked, “Why?“
“You need to call it a Brilliant now.“
He paused, then reflected on my comment. His brows lifted, he smiled and shook my hand.
Appeared in MINUTIA – The Magazine of the Microcar & Minicar Club Inc. – Issue 15 – Number 3 – May 2007