I finally got behind the wheel of a smart car, a fortwo passion cabriolet two-door convertible. As I made mental notes of my driving impressions, I was more caught up in people's impressions of me driving it.
Cars are lifestyle creations. What you drive defines you, or at least other people will define you by your car, as much as you may think this is not fair. Your belief that "My car simply gets me from point A to point B" is still a badge that you wear.
Where does the smart car fit into that? And does it fit in a fleet application?
The headroom and legroom are ample. The ride is tall; it reminded me of the five-door Suzuki Aerio. I took a 6' 2" friend for a spin and he fit in the passenger seat with ease. The convertible electric top folds down easily with one button, though rear visibility suffers. When I looked back over my right shoulder with the top down I had a hard time seeing the road.
In terms of the smart car's performance expectations, the bar is not set high. After a few hills and some stop-and-go, my friend remarked, "It feels peppier than I thought it would be."
The smart fortwo is built around a 1.0 L, 70 HP, three-cylinder engine. Its five speed-automatic transmission can be overridden by paddle shifters on both sides of the steering wheel.
My biggest driving issue, a common complaint, is the lag between gears. The paddle shifters mitigate this somewhat, though the constant lurch forward between gears is irksome.
I felt confident enough on the freeway. I kept up with traffic at a good clip and the microcar even gave me enough juice to pass. I didn't feel like I was in a tiny car (as long as I didn't turn around). The braking is very responsive.
When I was on the town I couldn't help noticing everyone noticing me in the smart car. Or at least I thought they were noticing me.
And I know what they were thinking: he drives a smart car. He is socially and environmentally conscious, a pacifist, a thinker, an NPR listener, a Sierra Clubber. He wouldn't hurt a fly. I call it "auto emasculation."
True, I do belong to the Sierra Club. (And I enjoyed taking a monster GMC Topkick with a Monroe pickup body on a Sierra Club camping trip.) But shouldn't I just stop worrying about image, grow up and just drive the car? Of course I should. But I didn't. In fact, on my way to the parking lot after exercising at my university gym, I felt the need to slow down and let a group of college guys getting out of touch football game pass before I unlocked the smart car.
I'm not the only one with car/image issues. There are forums in which, in between on-the-road compliments, defiant smart car owners lick their wounds after derisive shout outs from guys in jacked up pickups.
The smart car does suffer a bit of an image problem. It doesn't scream fun like the Mini Cooper nor does it scream green like the Prius, even though in reality the car can stand on its green credentials. It ranks as the fourth greenest vehicle in the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's (ACEEE) Green Book. The number of recyclable parts on the car lowers its cradle-to-grave environmental footprint further.
However, the car's official EPA fuel economy is 33 mpg city, 41 mpg highway. Those numbers don't seem a good enough tradeoff for the lack of a back seat and trunk space. Sure, it fits into parking spaces only motorcycles could go. But how often are you looking to park in a space smaller than one that would fit, say, a Toyota Yaris?
And priced between $11,990 and $20,990, the smart fortwo is in the ballpark of many capable subcompacts, including the Yaris, which scores one below the fortwo in the ACEEE rankings.
When it comes to fleet, drivers don't have much authority over your image. You may have some flexibility on your selector list, but chances are you can't choose a Mazda Miata over a Ford Taurus.
There are many practical considerations against choosing a smart car for a fleet application, including the ability to find authorized service stations and get an oil change for less than $100.
The smart car's benefit may not be its practicality, but its ability to turn heads. A power company in Kentucky is using it to wave the green flag.
The City of Somerville, Mass. purchased four smart cars for its municipal fleet and somehow won an award on "Municipal Truck Day."
A smart car is even being used as a police cruiser.
Though the smart car's green credentials are justified, others question a government purchase compared to cheaper, less attention-grabbing models.
Private fleets understand the "look at me" benefit too. Nintendo used it to promote its Wii console in Canada.
Wrap it in vinyl and it's a good promo car.
If you're looking to reach the creative class in cities such as New York, Seattle and San Francisco, a smart car vinyl wrap advertising your product would be a cost-effective play. But then, the Scion xB or VW Beetle could achieve about the same effect, though not as novel.
An all-electric smart fortwo is being tested in fleets in Great Britain. This may be the smartest incarnation for fleets yet, as a short-range, zero-emission city runabout. I'll be witnessing that from afar as I worry about my next image problem.