Apr 20, 2008

SmartCar (not brilliant, just smart)

So, I spent the last two weeks zipping around in a SmartCar.
You know the one- it's a mini mini tonka looking clown car very common in Europe and making big waves in the US right now (Still no idea? It's also the funny car Inspector Clouseau drives in 'The Pink Panther'). 1200 miles, 5 gas fill-ups and one bug spattered windshield later, I am ready to write up my review of the car.

To begin with, if you have no clue what car I am talking about, go to http://www.smartusa.com/ and educate yourself. This car is made by Mercedes, and has (surprisingly) tons of interior space, despite its diminutive exterior. I'm 5"8 ish and feel absolutely HUGE standing next to it, but once inside it has a lot of extra room, and very thoughtful ledges and nooks to stow stuff like cell phones, sunglasses...

They have a $99 reservation program where you can get on the list to buy one of these cars- and since I signed up a year ago and just got called now to get my own car, expect to wait at least 6-8 months -if not more- if you sign up today.
(Side note- if you really really want one today, you can have mine a black/black convertible- email me and we can talk)

Consider this- the cheapest base model coupe version is approx $12,000.
The most expensive version is the Passion (convertible) and reaches a staggering... wait for it... $18,000!!!
That's extremely affordable for a convertible- compare it to Edmunds.com which says that the cheapest convertible out there starts at $20,000- remember, that's a base model with no options, while the Smart's $18,000 sticker is fully loaded!

Now, some of the cons- stop booing, you knew there would be a few...

*bumpy ride- NOT RECOMMENDED FOR DRIVING FROM LA TO SACRAMENTO!!! You constantly have to re-steer the car, it tends to drift all over the highway, which can really freak you out on the mountains at 85mph, which yes, it can reach.

*High winds WILL toss you around a bit- I recently read Car & Driver's review of the car and one line stuck with me:
"Passing an 18-wheeler in a Smart in the dark at 70 mph is a tad unnerving; the wind was sometimes strong enough to jar the car’s path ever so slightly and cause the steering wheel to move, which will raise the hair on anyone’s neck."
I concur. You can read their entire review here:

*While it can reach speeds of 85-90 MPH, don't expect it to happen in an instant- it gets to 35 just fine and dandy, anything after that takes a bit of time- so don't dash out into that intersection and try to merge unless you KNOW there are no cars heading your way!

*Get used to a lot of "What kind of a car is that" and "My car could squish that like a bug!" comments. I tried to pretend it didn't bother me, but halfway through the first hour I was totally over the extra attention.

*It only gets about 35-40 MPG which is disappointing, you'd expect it to get at least 50 right? I know I tend to drive harder than most, but still, I expected it to be a bit more efficient.

*It does this little dip thing where the front bows down when I accelerate, and then it rises back up as it gains speed- makes you feel like you're in a low tech golf cart, and gets on your nerves after a while (To be fair, if you manually shift the gears using the paddles on either side of the steering wheel it is much smoother- but who wants to work when they're driving?!!? There's a reason I demanded an automatic!)

*I'm not certain but I think the car rattles a LOT more now that we drove it up to Northern Cali and back- I don't remember if it was that loud before, but it gurgles a lot now.

*HUGE difference if it's just me in the car, or if it's myself and my 5"10 husband. HUGE. When I drove it alone, I felt very light and the winds definitely messed with me a lot more- when he got in the car, the wind still affected us, but the car hesitated longer when I accelerated and was noticeable more sluggish in general.

*Since they are fairly new in the US, calling the 1-800-SmartCar number for roadside help is a bit disappointing- the reps (Mine was in Pennsylvania) aren't actually familiar with the cars and are pretty clueless- a light went on in mine (triangle with an exclamation mark) and the rep was pretty sure it meant my stability ride control had to be reset, but in reality had no idea what the light meant and (seriously) asked me to call back and LET HIM KNOW if the light went off the next time I started the car. Hmmmmm- not exactly confidence inspiring huh? (It was the stability thing- the light is off now).
On the plus side, it's fun to get around WITHIN the city- and extremely easy to park almost anywhere. I liked the AUX option, which allowed me to plug in my Iphone and listen to my own music, and it has seat warmers- which are completely unnecessary in California, but being from NY I can appreciate the gesture. It's kinda cute and makes people smile, spreading good cheer wherever I go.

To sum up: It's a fun car, really cheap, and guaranteed to garner attention (if that's your thing). I think it will have an initial hot run and but by the end of summer people will get tired of them, or at least get over the 'OMG I want one" feeling- I don't think the car itself will physically last as long as some other cars and since driving it any distance is extremely tiring, it won't win compared with a Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris (which can also hold two more people). The only saving grace is that at $12,000 a base coupe version is the most affordable car on the road, so it may become popular as a good commuter car or possibly a teen car.

If safety is your worry, rest assured- someone posted a YouTube video that set my mind at rest (I only saw it after my road trip)
I was shopping today and as I headed back to the car, I heard a kid remark to his mom "Look, it's just my size- can I have it Mom?"
Great, add 'has kid appeal' to the list of pros ;)


  1. The non US based quasi monthly semi regular readers of your blog (in this case, me) feel that it should be said that around here the Smart Car has managed to go out of style not once, but twice since making its appearance on this side of the world. that is to say that so much time has passed since its initial release that it is about as new as Laser Discs.
    With that said, said SmartCar new, or old still shouldn't be used for any kind of out of city driving - at best, it replaces the dune buggy that we all once used to get down to the grocery store back when we were spending summers in a lake side house.
    Furthermore, as an individual who resides in the land of good and plenty - taxes that is - i would happily spend $18,000 and upwards on many cars. For instance, the new VW Jetta that just moved into my driveway cost a staggering $44,117.

    Now, as a girl - you should have preferred the Mini Cooper to the SmartCar (starts from 18,500). I would arguably take a bit more money and get myself a Mustang long before i bought either the SmartCar of the Mini.

    And next time you are cruising around in say, an Audi A5 or a Lotus Elise or heck, a (poor man's) Porsche Boxter - remember than that same money will get you a Jetta around here. But hey, we only keep one day of chag - so i guess it is a win some lose some scenario...

  2. Thanks for the comment- here in the US the debut of the SmartCars is a huge deal- the Beverly Hills dealership has such a long list that if you signed up today you wouldn't even get a phone call till October! It must be funny watching the Smart mania unfold stateside when it is such an old story overseas...