Professional Football Players Smart Car!

This is a great and fun idea, putting football players in a Smart Car. Fans of the Canadian Football League regard their brand of pro football superior to that of that upstart league to the south for the edge-of-your-seat excitement three-down football offers.

Where most close NFL games are over with two minutes to play, the Canadian game is just warming up at the 120 second mark, with the very real prospect of a big, last minute play snatching victory from defeat.

Likewise, a CFL season can be a roller-coaster ride, as an eight-team league means even with a dismal early season record, a team is never truly out of the hunt for the right to hoist the Grey Cup come late November.

Conversely, faster than you can say “I’m going to Disneyland,” a promising season can end in the ditch. The wheels can come off in a hurry.

As I watched the black-on-black Smart fortwo cabrio creep out of the B.C. Lions training facility across 135th Street and towards King George Highway, it wasn’t so much the wheels coming off that concerned me. As a subsidiary of Mercedes-Benz, Smart cars are designed and built to a very high standard.

Instead, what troubled me was the simple physics surrounding 600 pounds of mammal stuffed into a 1,600 pound two-seater.

When the little car slipped from view onto King George, I couldn’t help but think how the Lion faithful would take the news of a Smart car-meets-cement mixer incident on a busy Surrey roadway involving two starting offensive lineman.

I concluded they would not take it well, and their first inclination would be to ask what the hell starting centre Angus Reid and starting guard Kelly Bates were doing driving a Smart car, anyway? Who’s bright idea was that?

Still, just as B.C. Lions quarterbacks have faith in the Leo lineman to protect their backs, I had faith Reid and Bates would protect mine.

Bates, who was behind the wheel of the Smart, told me as he snatched the key from my hand — did I mention he weighs 296 pounds? — that he first drove as a five-year old on the family farm in Quill Lake, Sask.

In addition to being well versed in the art of double clutching and bump starting all manner of mechanized farm implement, he’d also owned lots of cars during his high school years in nearby Humboldt, even a motorcycle — a 1,100-cc Yamaha Midnight Special Tourer.

Then an accident in a Chrysler Laser — “I got cut off and totalled it” — scared the promising young athlete enough that he wouldn’t own another vehicle until after graduation from the University of Saskatchewan. “I bought a pedal bike and used that to go most places during school.”

As we talked more, it seemed most of Bates’ auto stories ended badly — “My first Explorer was an Eddie Bauer model with the big tires. It was a great SUV, but I got in an accident in it.”

I was glad I interviewed Bates, who turns 32 today, after he’d taken the Smart for a ride.

The 30-year-old Reid, on the other hand, has about as much interest in cars as the Lions’ head chef has in experimenting with tofu.

The Richmond native and Simon Fraser University graduate regards a vehicle as a utilitarian object which, like a pair of good cleats or pair of shoulder pads, must be reliable and built to handle the job.

For the seven-year pro, who was originally drafted by Montreal but traded to B.C. in his rookie year of 2001, that job is handling his six-foot one-inch, 305-pound frame and providing him with plenty of cargo space for his other job. No, not as a pollster, but as the owner operator of A&D Solutions, a promotional printing business.

My first inclination was to have Reid drive the Smart car to get a big man’s impression of the vehicle, but as I set about describing to him how the sequential shifter worked — “You just push it forward to go up in gear, and pull it back to shift down” — he anxiously looked to Bates who gladly took the driver’s seat. Not the first time the Saskatchewan Husky has bailed out his SFU Clansman line mate. Last season, Bates filled in at centre for an injured Reid during an important game against Edmonton.

Fifteen minutes or so went by and my eye caught sight of the little black car buzzing around the corner and back into the parking lot.

The car was in one piece (oh, but if those 15-inch wheels could talk), the big ol’ linemen had smiles on their faces and the writer wondered why he’d worried in the first place. Of course, had he known at the time the ‘permissible total weight’ of the smart fortwo cabrio was exceeded by 18.8 pounds during the boys’ runabout, he would have required the team trainer and some smelling salts.

Bates’s confidence behind the wheel aside, the safety of the pair was never really much of a concern.

The Smart car’s unique and distinctive shape is not designed simply to score high on the cute scale — that it does is a nice bonus. Rather, the egg-like profile is part and parcel of the rigged and reinforced steel frame that serves as a protective cocoon for the two occupants. Called the Tridion Safety Cell, it is designed to absorb much of the impact energy from a crash (for proof, visit youtube.com and search “Smart car crash”). Also, by placing the 3-cylinder 800-cc turbo diesel engine and transmission underneath the passenger compartment, neither mechanical system can come into the cabin during a collision.

Not only does the safety cell provide excellent occupant protection, it also creates a very large cabin. True, Reid did have to put his left arm around Bates’ driver seat so that the guard could work the six-speed sequential shifter — quite a sight deep in the heart of Surrey, to be sure — but both big men reported they fit pretty well into the smart fortwo cabrio and even had an inch of headroom to spare.

They also liked the toy-like gauges and controls on the dash, a central and overriding theme of the Smart car since day one. Not surprising as the initial partner in the automaker with Mercedes was watchmaker Swatch (Smart is a near-acronym for Swatch Mercedes ART).

Cute looks aside, the real appeal of the Smart fortwo is fuel economy. And while its combined 4.2 L/100km consumption figure might balloon a couple of decimal points with Bates at the wheel and Reid riding shotgun, the rate at which it sips diesel fuel is quite remarkable.

On a full tank of diesel (figure around 22 bucks to fill the 22 litre tank in Greater Vancouver), you can drive the 32 kilometres between the Lions’ Surrey practice facility and their home field at BC Place more than 16 times. Consider a one-way SkyTrain fare from the Gateway station, a mere spiralled punt away from the Lions’ practice field, to Stadium station downtown is $4.50, and you begin to appreciate the true intelligence of the Smart car.

The fact that it’s 40 horsepower engine managed to haul two big professional football players also indicates this is one smart package.

Reid, Bates and the Lions are riding high as reigning Grey Cup champions. And heading into tomorrow’s tilt against the Stamps in Calgary, the team is 4-0 out of the gate following last week’s 22-18 win over Hamilton.

The fortunes of Smart, on the other hand, have not been so rosy of late, with the recent outright cancellation of the forfour model (the four-seater that had been for sale in Europe) seen as a blow to the company’s potential growth.

Still, a redesigned fortwo is set for sale in North America as a 2008 model this fall, and many observers feel an improved gearbox and slightly higher engine output will spur sales.

Canada has been a bright spot for the clever little cars, as dealerships in many urban areas, particularly Vancouver and Victoria, have experienced strong sales. In fact, May sales for this year, at approximately 500 units, was a record for the Canadian division.

And as both Reid and Bates noted, the Smart is a brilliant solution to driving around if it suits your lifestyle. That’s a big ‘if’ for football players — except maybe kickers — but as a second car that will be used primarily as an urban runabout, the Smart fortwo has few equals. And with sub-$20,000 starting prices ($16,700 for the fortwo coupe, $19,700 for the cabrio), either model represents great value for money.

Smart execs can take some solace from the CFL, as that league is currently on as sound footing as it has been in decades, the debacle of expansion into the United States and questionable team ownership far behind in the rearview mirror.

Just as Bates and Reid, each of whom started all 20 games last season on route to winning the Grey Cup, will make sure the wheels don’t come off the Lions’ 2007 campaign, Smart cars are just too smart, too reliable to go the way of the Baltimore CFL Colts, the Shreveport Pirates and the San Antonio Texans.

BIG WHEELS

In this monthly series , automotive writer Andrew McCredie kicks some new-vehicle tires and goes for a ride with high profile British Columbians from the world of entertainment, sports, business and politics.

KELLY BATES

First vehicle: “When I was pretty young my job was to pull a 500-gallon watertank with a tractor from the pump to a cistern.

First car: “It was a 1979 Cutlass Supreme. Baby blue. It had been my mom’s and she’d kept it really good shape. Took me about four months to total it off. Then I had an ’82 Cutlass and then a few more. Always Oldsmobiles. I remember one was all green except for a black driver’s door.”

Current car: “Ford Explorer. Always wanted one and now that I’ve got it I’m pretty happy. I’m a large SUV-type guy.”

Dream car: “I always said I’d never want a Hummer, but once I drove in Murph’s H2 I really liked it.”

Proving you can’t take the farm out of the farm boy, Bates thinks a little and adds, “But probably the military H1 model. Those are amazing. They’d get through the sloughs back home.”

ANGUS REID

First car: “All through high school I drove my mom and dad’s car, and when I was in university (SFU) I lived on campus and bummed rides off buddies,” says Reid.

“When I finally turned pro my main thing was to buy something reliable and something I fit in. So, I bought a used Ford Explorer, which worked out well. Then I had a Chevy SUV.

Current car: “I went import and drive a 2006 Mitsubishi Endeavor. Still an SUV as we’re big guys and need the room. Also, with my business I need to haul around product so I need the cargo space, too.”

Next car: “It will still most likely be an SUV, but as gas prices are killing me right now, I’d like to see if we could get a hybrid. That’s the way everything seems to be going.”

Dream car: “You give me a nice Range Rover and I’m good to go. My wife and I always say to each other, ‘That’s the one we’ll get,’ when we see a nice new one.

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