The buzz at the North American (Detroit) International Auto Show in January included rumors that parent company Mercedes Benz might seriously consider bringing the cute little Smart Car to US shores. They were able to score a small piece of premium floor space back near Scion where they displayed the most popular Fortwo (referring to the car being “for two” people) model, along with a Forfour, a roadster, and the four-seat sport-utility version designed specifically for the US. While gauging reaction to the car the marketing and PR folks for Smart convinced us that it could be a winner here.
We sure didn’t want to miss an opportunity to do some serious research and have some fun with the little thing so we arranged a test drive from Toronto where Mercedes Benz of Canada has its corporate headquarters and keeps its press fleet. The Smart Car was introduced in Canada just last fall. They’ve sold about 2,300 units so far through 45 M-B dealers across Canada who have the Smart franchise.
You might recognize the ‘city car’ in the photo above if you pay attention to car magazines or have been to Europe in the past few years. Other manufacturers make tiny city cars in Europe but the Smart Car defines best of the genre. “In 1994 Mercedes Benz and the Swatch (watch company) group created a joint venture called Microcompact Car. The main target was to create a new urban transportation method,” we were told by Richard Trevisan, manager of Smart Canada Division of M-B. Mercedes, as we might imagine, created the mechanical concepts, which they had been working on since the 70s, and Swatch did the marketing concepts, including the interchangeable body panels which allow the customer to change the color of his car at will.
Major components are made mostly in Germany but the car is assembled in France. Though tiny it is considered a premium car and is priced from $14,000 to about $24,000 Canadian. Three trim levels are available. The materials, design and workmanship of the Smart Car are truly top drawer.
News broke shortly after the NAIAS that the Smart Car division was struggling to make ends meet and at risk of going away entirely as a brand, in spite of worldwide sales since 1998 of 630,000 units in 36 countries. That crisis has passed. As we write this review the Smart Division is being reorganized for efficiency, dropping the roadster and sport-ute models. The good news is the brand is safe for now. Bad news is, it will not be coming to the US in the near term. That’s really bad news we decided after just a few days with the car because it’s quite a hoot to drive and to see just buzzing around town.
As you can see by the photo above, the tiny car has no butt. The rear tires stick out beyond where the body ends. And its nose slopes away steeply from the top at an angle reminiscent of the BMW Isetta of the late 50s. Over all it looks unlike anything ever produced in North America. The interior has an almost Art Deco quality but with a modern interpretation. Details are both functional and artful.
Before we leave M-B HQ with the car we get a thorough walk-around with ace sales gal Sarah Roelofson. The lovely Ms. Roelofson sold BMWs nearby until the opportunity to sell the Smart Car came along. We have no question that she is sold on the car as she parks ours behind hers showing us that two fit nicely into one parking place. She does a remarkable job of narrating the car and all its features for the camera. She’s a natural. She also shows us the Smart Car’s superstructure displayed inside the show room – reportedly the only display of its kind anywhere. The rigid passenger compartment is constructed as a secure cage using race car-building techniques. Crumple zones are designed so that the forces of front or rear impacts are directed down under the sturdy passenger compartment where they are absorbed and dissipated.
Our road test tour will take us from M-B HQ on the northeast side of Toronto about two hours west to quaint Stratford, Ontario where the famous annual Stratford Festival runs all summer and includes more than a dozen professionally produced plays, both Shakespearian and modern.
It takes the entire 4 or 5 miles from M-B HQ back to the 401 freeway to just get acclimated to the controls of our peppy Smart Car Fortwo. Of course I want to shift it myself keeping it out of the automatic mode. I have two options, paddle shifting on the steering wheel or the traditional floor shifter between the seats. Or I can alternate between the two if I like. I also find, embarrassingly, that the smart little Smart Car will take it upon itself to shift for the inattentive driver who doesn’t always shift within a safe range.
Not knowing exactly what to expect I skitter full throttle through the cloverleaf entrance onto the 7-lane 401 super highway, into heavy traffic not amenable to accommodating a car that can’t keep up. So I keep up – with considerable effort.
Powered by an 800cc, 3-cylinder turbo-diesel engine mounted under the rear package tray, it makes just over 50 horsepower and 74 lb.-ft. of torque. Power gets to the rear wheels by way of the choppy 6-speed transmission. Either way the shifts are slow and definitive but fun none-the-less. Our friends at M-B insist that it will easily get 60 miles per Imperial gallon of diesel fuel. That’s about 48 mpg US.
Our support vehicle, a new Ford Escape Hybrid, is just ahead of me. We’re video taping the car for an upcoming TV show so they’re watching me carefully dodge in, around and between 18-wheelers, and every other manner of vehicle. We’re driving into a stiff head wind. I have the sliding canvas top open all the way and the side windows down. Traffic is moving about 100 kph (62 mph), when it’s moving at all, while we’re still in the city. As we get to the edge of metropolitan Toronto traffic picks up to around 130 kph (80 mph). My right foot is flat on the floor. I can’t seem to get more than 130 out of her even though the speedometer goes to 140. I close up the top with the power switch. It seals tight. Then I close the power side windows. Without that wind resistance I can make 140 easily keeping up with the brisk westward flow of traffic.
What does the diminutive Smart Car feel like at 80 mph between two semis in a brisk wind on the 401, you ask?
Surprisingly stable, I must say. Certainly, I feel the jostle and sway of being buffeted about but there is never a feeling of insecurity or instability. Very impressive. The suspension, as you might guess, is quite firm, but as we shift up and down to keep the power maximized at around 2,500 to 3,000 rpm we rock back and forth boat-like because of the short wheel base and the relaxed pace of transition from gear to gear.
My colleagues in the Escape ahead said the best video shot is the Smart Car dancing along in the center lane flanked by huge rigs on either side.
West of Toronto we exit the 401 at Kitchener and head west on Highway 8. We arrive at the appointed hour to meet our host from the Stratford Tourist Bureau who will show us around town and arrange some interviews. We’ve been thinking of the Smart Car as an icon for youngsters but we’re seeing awestruck looks coming from all generations including our middle-aged host.
As we bounce around town for the next couple of days getting a feel for the area and the car we continue to be amazed at the attention and interest the Smart Car generates. This is certainly not your car if you’d like to be unnoticed, particularly in the chartreuse color of our test car. It has been available in Canada long enough for quite a few folks to know what it is. Many folks look up, point and holler, “Smart Car”. The others look up, point and holler, “What’s that?”
According to our M-B folks its not just being sold in urban area as we might expect. It’s popular in small towns as well where people have relatively short distances to drive and want the fun and economy of this odd duck. Division Manager Trevisan tells us that the best-represented demographic group among Smart owners is what he calls DINKS – that is, “dual-income, no-kids”. Judging from the dozens of folks around Stratford with whom we talked, from a group of juvenile delinquents at the local trade school to an old fellow from Quebec admiring the swans with his much-younger wife, the appeal of the Smart Car easily spans generations.
I can’t imagine that this great little car would find anything less than an enthusiastic reception among US car buyers.
So, we heartily recommend that our friends at Daimler-Chrysler and Mercedes Benz reconsider bringing it here. I’ll sure be a likely customer.
I’m just one real DINK. There are lots more of us.