Get Smart? Or Maybe Not

Sure, this tiny car is cute and can park anywhere. But the Smart Fortwo isn't as inexpensive or fuel-efficient as it ought to be

I'm not sure the Smart is aptly named—after driving Daimler's (DAI) odd and interesting Fortwo coupe for a few days. The model name is dead-on, as only two people can, in fact, ride in it at a time. But Smart?

I got into the little runabout and immediately felt I was in a car priced at about $10,000 and built in some Eastern European factory devoid of modern robotics. It feels a bit like a kit car, one my Dad and I might have built in the driveway.

At 106.1-in. long—less than half the size of a standard U.S. parking space, and a staggering five feet shorter than the Chevrolet Aveo or Toyota Yaris, the two smallest cars I know of on the road with backseats—the Fortwo is, as I would expect, a breeze to park and maneuver.

I set out for downtown Ann Arbor, Mich., to run some errands and get a coffee. Ann Arbor, of course, is a college town in which I have seen people driving electric cars and where it sometimes seems that every new house comes with a Prius. I have also seen a few Smart Fortwos running around and parked at Whole Foods (WFMI). So, I am prepared for gawkers and questioners.

Nose-to-Curb. Next Stop, Manhattan?

I was dying to park my Fortwo nose-to-curb. This is one of the big benefits of the car in Europe in hyper-congested cities. It is also one of the selling points to Americans who live in cities where nose-to-curb parking is permitted. See a space near the hydrant that is too small for General Motors' (GM) Chevy Malibu or Toyota's (TM) Sequoia? Pack a tape measure in your Fortwo, so you can measure the distance between your driver door and the hydrant in case you can squeeze in. I've had to drive by many a space in New York into which the Fortwo could be crammed, even after the alternate-side-of-the-street parking shift takes place in the morning and all the spaces appear to be gone.

I parked the car nose-to-curb and walked away, crossing Washington Street to Starbucks (SBUX) for a cup of Pike Place. On the way, I passed a trio of young women gawking at the Fortwo. One said: "You know…they only parked that way because they can." True. There was plenty of space for me to park conventionally, but I was out to prove the point—that I could. I really wanted to drive this thing around Manhattan.

But I wasn't so keen to drive the Smart from Michigan to New York to try it out. I did take it out on the highway on Route 94 to Detroit Metro Airport. I comfortably got the car up to 60 mph. I passed some cars going 70 mph. It was O.K., I wasn't uncomfortable, and the car didn't appear to be straining too much. By the way, my wife forbade me to take my 6-year-old son in the car. But that's only because there is no backseat, and it's a no-no to have a child that small in the front seat with a booster seat.

So, I'm down with the funky design. And I like the idea of a car that uses less gas than our minivan when we don't need all that space. What I dislike about the Fortwo is that it doesn't deliver enough given the small package and somewhat pricey sticker.

Dashed Expectations

Prices for the 2008 Smart Fortwo start at $11,590 for a base model, called the Fortwo Pure. The next level up, the Passion coupe, starts at $13,590, while the Passion convertible begins at $16,590. The Fortwo has the best fuel economy of any gasoline-powered car that's not a hybrid, but its EPA ratings of 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 mpg on the highway are far worse than I would expect for such a small package. Gee whiz. The 2009 VW Jetta TDI I am waiting to drive gets 30/41, and I'd get a backseat and a much more substantial interior. The other car I'm looking at for my own driveway is Honda's (HMC) Fit, which gets 28/34.

Call me a dreamer, but for a car as small and expensive as the Fortwo, I'm looking for 45 mpg/city and 52 mpg/highway, at least. On top of that, the car requires premium petrol. Give me a break.

Also, the Fortwo's interior is a bit plasticky. Materials feel cheap, even the carpet. The cup holders are two small for many common-sized cups. A shelf behind two bucket seats provides space for a few grocery bags or a couple of small soft-side duffels.

Smart offers one drivetrain combination in the U.S: a 70-horsepower, 1-liter, three-cylinder engine with an automated manual transmission. An automated transmission is similar to a manual transmission, but it has no clutch pedal and operates like an automatic. Electronic controls shift gears. I drove it in both automatic and manual modes, but settled into automatic. The manual shifting does not provide the same sort of control or performance as a real manual.

Irrational Purchase

As I shop for a new car, the rational side of my brain does not let me seriously consider the Fortwo. If I lived in New York, San Francisco, or Washington, though, I admit I would consider it just for the parking advantage. But not all car purchases are rational. And I believe this is what is driving the runaway success of Smart's first year on sale in the U.S. The first year's allocation from Mercedes-Benz is already spoken for. The company continues to take $99 deposits, though money down today doesn't get you a car until the middle of next year at the earliest.

There is a part of me that wants to compare the early Smart phenomenon to either the early days of the Volkswagen Beetle or Mini. But the comparison doesn't hold up very well. The early buyers of the Beetle were World War II veterans who had seen firsthand in the war how tough and durable the German army's Volkswagen military vehicles were. After the war, when actual Beetles were being made, word spread fast how reliable and durable the bubble-shaped cars were. In the case of Mini's comeback in 2001 under the direction and engineering of BMW (BMWG), the car, despite its small size, was fast, stylish, and extremely well engineered. And, the Mini Cooper's fuel economy is nearly as good as the Fortwo's, though a well-equipped model costs thousands more than the Smart.

The fact that Smart is manufactured by Mercedes-Benz also pushes up my expectations. For years, Mercedes lost money on Smart. Currently, the company says it is making profit after a significant cost-cutting program that eliminated other Smart vehicles. But it feels a bit like the costs of manufacturing the cars in France and selling them in the U.S. when the dollar is so weak against the euro has driven the German automaker to cut too many costs, to the point where, but for the wacky design that appeals to some, it's simply not worth the money.

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