It wasn’t until I topped 80 mph that I considered the safety aspects of driving a pea-sized Smart in SUV-dense rush-hour traffic on Highway 36 between Denver and Boulder. I think it hit my 12-year-old son at about the same time; he suddenly became less concerned about looking like a fool in the passenger seat of such a tiny car and instead began scanning the shoulder for a soft spot to land if I failed to immediately master the Smart’s tricky transmission.
If you’ve seen the Smart—the two-seater car about the size of a go-cart and the shape of a capital D—you understand the sudden worry. I was driving the Passion fortwo cabriolet model. It’s 8 feet 10 inches long and 5 feet 1 1/2 inches wide. If there was no rear window, I could reach back and touch the tailpipe. If I missed the gas pedal and kicked through the floorboard, it would take out a headlight. Driving something so small amid vehicles so large at a high rate of speed is a little nerve-wracking. Imagine bowling a hamster ball—with the hamster in it—and then firing a few 14-pounders down the lane after him just to keep him on his toes…that’s what it’s like to drive a Smart in traffic for the first time. You’re the hamster.
If the Smart people were to be believed, there was little reason to worry. Because the Smart is so teeny, they’re specially designed to keep their shape even in the event of a catastrophic wreck. This is accomplished with a space-age metal cage surrounding the cockpit, front and side airbags and the incorporation of so-called “crumple zones” into the body. I couldn’t help arching an eyebrow at the saleswoman’s mention of the crumple zones when I picked up the car in Denver earlier that day. The crumple zone on my Ford Explorer is half the size of the Smart itself.
But sitting safely in the parking lot, I didn’t give a second thought to crumple zones. Like my son, I was more concerned with how I looked than how I would fare in a crash.
I recently spent some time in Italy, and when I spotted the first of what would eventually be multitudes of Smarts tooling around the narrow streets of Turin, I instinctively barked out a derisive laugh. It was not only a very American reaction, but more specifically a very Coloradan reaction. Here, I’m surrounded by pickup trucks and SUVs. Beginning with my first set of wheels—a 1971 Chevy Impala, the largest full-sized car GM ever made—it’s been ingrained in me that a vehicle should be roomy enough to tote six of your friends and a keg of beer, no problem. And it should be able to haul everything from snowmobiles to pontoon boats into the mountains. My Explorer gets the same gas mileage as that long-gone Impala, somewhere in the low teens, but that’s the price you pay for the extra legroom.
Yet with the cost of gas topping $4 a gallon last summer and a whole new social consciousness about “being green,” it’s difficult not to wonder if you really need a Hemi to haul your butt from home to work each day. That was my Italian friend’s point of view at least, and he happened to own a Smart. He argued for low gas mileage and saving the planet. I argued for being able to buy a full load of groceries all at once.
The longer I stayed in Italy, however, the more the Smart grew on me. For a city with streets so narrow, it was…well, smart. I watched drivers do three-point turns in an alley no wider than my garage. I marveled when they parked in spaces that would barely accommodate a hotdog stand. And judging from the number of times I was nearly run over, I was impressed with their obvious zip. The Smarts began to seem a little cocky to me. They were clearly in their element in a dense European city.
I wanted to see if that attitude held up in Colorado. Despite the altitude and relative lack of congested cities, there is a lot of demand in the Mile High State. The only dealership in a seven-state region, the Smart Center in Denver, had a backlog of orders. I attributed this to Colorado’s environmental sensitivities. It was here, after all, that President Obama signed the economic stimulus legislation, admiring the solar panels on the Denver Museum and promising to usher in a “new energy economy,” a phrase he borrowed from Gov. Bill Ritter.
There’s little question the Smart is smart when it comes to efficiency. Or at least smarter. At a gas-sipping 41 mpg on the highway, it’s the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered car for sale in the United States. But some hybrids—the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda Insight—get better gas mileage. With the Smart’s 33 mpg rating in the city, it’s not much better than the Toyota Yaris and the Mini Cooper (at 29 and 28 mpg, respectively). And they’re bigger.
My skepticism wasn’t in whether it was the smallest, the most fuel-efficient or the most environmentally friendly, but in whether it could work at all in an environment like Colorado. Snow, ice, potholes, steep mountain roads and high altitude can take a toll on a vehicle. I wanted to put the Smart through the ringer to see how it performed.
Just as importantly, I wanted to see how it made me feel. Maybe I’ve been behind the wheel of an SUV too long, but I had a suspicion that I would feel like a complete idiot driving the equivalent of a golf cart in which I couldn’t even fit my golf clubs. As much as I was interested in technical details, I was very interested in the cultural aspect as well.
My first impression of getting behind the wheel was one that many reviewers have commented on: Once the seatbelt is fastened, you don’t notice that you’re inside something with roughly the same cubic footage as a phone booth. Partly, that’s thanks to seats that are elevated an average of 8 inches off the roadway compared to other cars. This results in an “up in the cab” feeling that, believe it or not, is familiar to SUV owners.
My second impression was that you can have some serious fun in a Smart. The car is quick and nimble, highly responsive and doesn’t seem to balk at all when you rev up the RPMs to a whining crescendo before slapping it into the next gear.
Of course, that’s after you master its hinky dual transmission…which brings us back to Judgment Time on the Boulder Turnpike at 80 mph in the slow lane with a Honda Element trying to merge and solid wall of Ford F350s on the port side. There’s a semi so close behind I could have ordered my son to polish the Peterbilt emblem on the grill from where he sat, wide-eyed and gripped because I couldn’t get the Smart to either speed up or slow down. The problem was that I was in “automatic,” which is not at all like the automatic I grew up with in that Impala. The old Chevy’s 350-cubic-inch engine displaced nearly six times the volume of fuel/air mix than the Smart’s one-liter engine. When you stood on that accelerator to make room for merging traffic, your hair flew back…when you stood on the Smart’s, you lurched forward in the seat when it went into neutral.
I’d been warned of this by the saleswoman who showed me how the transmission worked on empty streets around the Smart Center. The transmission is “automatic” in the sense that you don’t have to shift gears with your hands and there’s no clutch. But you do have to shift with your foot…when the engine reaches the top end of the gear, you have to ease off the gas and press down again. It’s a delicate maneuver and if you don’t master it, the car flops around in neutral but eventually assumes you aren’t as smart as you think you are and shifts gears for you. It’s not something you want to experience on the Boulder Turnpike at rush hour. Luckily, switching on the fly from automatic to manual (again, without a clutch) is as simple as flicking the gearshift. I eventually mastered the automatic mode, but preferred to do my own shifting—either with the gearshift on the floor or with up and down paddles on the steering wheel—because the car was much easier to control and maneuver.
So, just as I was about to look like a tree-hugging hippie who couldn’t run with the big boys in his little eco-car, I jammed it down to third gear and floored it. Had there been a tachometer, the needle would have spring-boarded into the red. I was impressed with the sudden burst of speed. I wove that little car through gaps in traffic the width of parking spaces, accelerating all the way. I didn’t even care that I now looked like a tree-hugger with a Napoleon complex.
From that point, I drove the Smart like it was a Maserati. The next day, I made it from Loveland to Estes Park up Big Thompson Canyon—a 25-mile continuous S-curve with a half-mile elevation gain—without falling below 55 mph even on the hairpins. On the Peak to Peak highway, I sailed over snow-packed roads and wet pavement without a slip. Later, in Weld County, the car’s Swiss-clock suspension reduced the washboard crinkle of a rural road to little more than a distant hum at 45 miles per hour. It hugged the dirt road the same way it hugged fresh asphalt. I hate to say it, but the Explorer would have been drifting all over the place at that speed, even in four-wheel drive.
From a driver’s perspective, the Smart exceeded my expectations. Its super-low center of gravity and its lawnmower-short wheelbase resulted in exceptional corner hugging and pinpoint maneuvering. In traffic, it jumped around like a flea in a puppy mill. It cruised comfortably at 90 mph on the highway and didn’t get blasted to the shoulder by the wind shear of passing big-rigs. I drove it almost 500 miles with a lead foot—half the time at high altitude—and got about 33 mpg. Those who don’t drive it like they’re in a rally race can expect better gas mileage.
My biggest beef was that it was simply unnecessarily small, even though it can be accessorized with a rear-bumper rack to carry skis, snowboards and bicycles. If the lack of a back seat and a meager 7.8 cubic feet of trunk space resulted in gas mileage of 70-plus, it might be worth it. As is, I’d rather pay an extra $10,000 for a Mini Cooper if only to have a full back seat and the ability to drop a friend with suitcases off at the airport.
And from a cultural perspective? While I found it surprisingly easy to drift off and forget I was behind the wheel of the strangest looking car on the road, constant reminders were never far away. One of the things they don’t tell you in the Smart brochure is that you’re destined to be stared at and commented on no matter where you go. It’s like a man deciding to wear a kilt; you can rarely expect to blend in, for good or bad.
But even this aspect of driving a Smart was different than I expected. Of course, I was waved at with adulation in Boulder because I was presumably saving the Earth. In Greeley, I may as well have been wearing a kilt. Two pedestrians came to a dead halt while I was at a stoplight so they could snap pictures with their phones. Yes, it was a little uncomfortable.
What surprised me were the people I thought would hate it but didn’t. An old man in a rattletrap pickup gave me a beaming smile and a thumbs-up. A balding 50-ish gas station attendant in Loveland literally ran out the door to admire the car close up. Outside the Pioneer Inn in Nederland, a grizzled mountain man told me he was thinking about buying a Smart for his daughter.
Some constituencies couldn’t be swayed, however. When my son asked if I would be picking him up from school in the Smart on Monday morning, I told him no. The car was due back at the dealership.
“Thank God,” he replied immediately.
Greg Campbell is a Fort Collins-based author and journalist whose work most recently appeared in The Economist. His third book, Flawless, Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, will be published by Union Square Press in the fall.