Friday, July 14, 2006

The Smart Car: Intelligent Fun

There are some amazing things about the Mercedes-Benz Smart car. With a combined fuel rating of 4.2 litres/100 km (or 67 miles to the gallon), it's one of the most environmentally responsible cars currently available. Despite its tiny size, Mercedes' innovative tridon safely cell design and crash management system make it one of the safest small vehicles to drive.

But the most amazing thing about the Smart car is that it has the power to change the way we drive and how we interact with other cars on the road - and that's nothing short of miraculous!

On the downside, it is a Mercedes. The base sticker price of $ 16,700 doesn't include such fundamental options as air-conditioning or even a coffee holder. The fully-loaded, top-end cabriolet Pulse model (which includes a convertible roof and Brabus enhancements) comes in at a cool $ 27,300, before taxes, freight and PDI.

I recently had the opportunity to witness the magic of the Smart car first hand after test driving one for a couple of days. I picked the car up at Mercedes headquarters in Toronto, and after a brief driving lesson was on my way. Although I've driven most everything from VW bugs to mid-sized trucks, getting behind the wheel of the Smart car was a truly unique driving experience. Once I finally got a handle on the transmission, (an odd, rough hybrid that provides three, clutchless driving options) I spent a few hours driving around Toronto.

Summer means road construction in Canada's largest and most congested city. Being unfamiliar with which roads were currently being worked on meant that I spent a fair bit of time sitting in traffic. Rather than being a frustrating experience, this was where I first began to witness the Smart car's magic. Spaces miraculous opened up for me in long traffic lines, and people even stopped to let me in when they had the right of way.

My next experience with the Smart's magic was when I parked at a municipal parking lot to do a few errands. I didn't have change to feed the meter, and given that I was only counting on being a couple of minutes, I decided to take a chance. Like everything else in Toronto, it took longer than I had anticipated and by the time returned to the car, there was a ticket on the windshield. I was surprised to discover that I had been given something called a Courtesy Charge - a friendly warning that "repeated issue of courtesy charges ... could result in the issue of a parking infraction notice." Wow. The cute little car even earned the respect of the meter maids!

During my entire afternoon in Toronto, I only saw one other Smart car, which appeared in my rear view mirror during afternoon rush hour. I was busy waving to its driver when I noticed a large black shadow approaching on our right. A full sized black Hummer, complete with smoked-out windows, pulled alongside us, stretching more than twice the combined length of our vehicles. I gulped and looked over at the driver. A young man, almost as big and scary looking as his Hummer, leaned out his window, flashed a giant smile and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up as he sped off. Like I said, magic.

Highway driving was my next experience. The Smart car's tiny 3-cylinder, turbo diesel engine seemed surprisingly well suited for the task. The car accelerated easily to 130 km/hour (I was just testing) and handled beautifully in traffic. (The Smart engine is electronically limited to a top speed of 135 km/hr.) I couldn't help but notice that my Smart car was taking about one-third the space of just about every other vehicle on the road. I tried to imagine what would happen to rush hour congestion if everyone drove a Smart car.

Safely home, I spent the next two days taking just about everyone I know for a test drive. They loved it. And everywhere I drove other drivers waved, pedestrians pointed and smiled. The overwhelming consensus: the Smart car is intelligent fun.

I even managed to convince a friend who works for one of the major North American automakers to come for a drive. Initially he was rather reluctant, but after cruising around with the roof open for a few minutes, the Smart car started working its magic on him, too. At the end of our test drive, while he was still beaming, I asked him was why his company wasn't making a smart vehicle.

His thoughtful answer, "Yeah, why not?"

There's hope for us yet!


For more information, including crash test footage, visit The Smart Car

NEXT WEEK: The future of the car: Where do we go from here?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am seriously thinking of buying a smart car partly because of your comments. My only concern is carrying capacity but I think I got it figured out since a friend of mine has a pickup truck and he may be willing to trade it for a few days when I need it ,in return, he gets the use of my smart car. He too has taken it for a test drive and he loves it too.

August 25, 2006 11:00 PM  

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