Friday, June 10, 2011

Think Smart: Pay attention in this tiny ride

Sacramento, California – I want to say up front that I continue to be awed by the sheer genius of the Smart car line of two-seaters.

Really! The engineering that went into making these tiny cars is nothing short of remarkable. You can zip them along city streets and flog them down the freeway at 70 miles an hour, and still have all the comforts of a typical car at your fingertips.

Genius, I tell you!

But the Smart fortwo – my tester technically was a $19,620 2011 smart fortwo passion cabriolet, a maddening series of lower-case names seemingly paying tribute to the little car – remains very much a niche car. And if you’ve been thinking of buying one in these times of $4 a gallon of gas, be forewarned.

You really need to pay attention when you’re driving this car.

The tester was a cloth-topped car. The top slid open and closed at the push of a button. Very cool. But note that a hard-topped Smart fortwo lets in a lot of noise. The cabriolet version nearly doubles that.

On the expressway, my tester sounded like it was in a wind tunnel. And every 18-wheel truck in the vicinity sounded like it was coming into the cockpit for a visit. Not only that, I had to grip the steering wheel firmly to keep the car straight in high crosswinds.

OK, that’s not the Smart car’s fault. A car this small is going to get whipped around in the wind. It’s just something you need to be aware of if you’re regularly dicing in rush-hour traffic on a busy urban freeway system.

It’s my guess that a lot of people have pondered buying a Smart vehicle – 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 mpg on the highway are deliciously alluring – but walked away when they envisioned wheeling the vehicle around in heavy freeway traffic. It’s natural to ask sometimes: I wonder if the driver in that big commercial truck CAN EVEN SEE ME next to him?

Yup, that’s a consideration. I get it.

Happily, the 1-liter, 3-cylinder, 70-horsepower engine moves the car along nicely … once you get the revs up. Getting up there is interesting with an automatic gearbox. You’re pushed forward in your seat on the transition between Gears 1 and 2, and then again on the trip from Gears 2 to 3. Once you’re there, the car settles down and performs well.

Cargo space? If you have to ask, you don’t get it.

Get this: The Smart fortwo is a near-perfect, fuel-saving, parking-wonder of a car in a contained urban setting. For longer commutes and long road trips, you’re stretching the reason for its existence. Yet if you want a Smart car for all seasons and uses, that’s no crime.

Just make sure you pay attention.

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