Daimler's Smart car lives up to its name
It's 8 feet long, gets 60 mpg and is surprisingly roomy and sufficiently nimble.
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Titans of the auto industry seldom go out of their way to use the word "small." They don't talk much about small cargo areas or small engines, and particularly when it comes to these SUV-loving shores, they'd rather not think about small cars and the small profits that go with them.
But "small" has been an unavoidable term lately at DaimlerChrysler (Charts). In finding my way into one of the company's ingenious Smart cars, which may or may not soon appear in a showroom near you, I discovered exactly why.
The Smart, for those of you who haven't been to Europe in the past eight years, is a Mercedes sub-brand of "micro-class" cars that's currently available in virtually every Western nation except the United States.
Mercedes just announced that it's finally bringing the Smart to America in 2008, but since that day is still a ways off, I had to hunt one down from someone the Mercedes brass clearly considers a small-fry: Steve Schneider, the CEO of a Santa Rosa, Calif., company called Zap.
Schneider has long believed that the U.S. market is ripe for the Smart - believed it so strongly, in fact, that he's spent years lining up a network of dealers and taking orders for cars not in his possession.
Since Mercedes wouldn't sell to him directly, he's been buying Smarts from third-party brokers, modifying them to meet U.S. regulations, and then flipping them. Still, though Schneider claims to have a backlog of nearly 100,000 orders,
Mercedes can't seem to get past the small thing: As part of its Smart-to-America announcement, it tabbed Roger Penske's United Auto Group to handle its U.S. dealer network.
The test drive
But in the meantime, Schneider's doing brisk business, moving cars off his lot as fast as he can get his hands on them. My tester, Smart's signature two-seater, the ForTwo, was one of just a few in his possession.
I quickly grasped why he wouldn't have it for long. Soon after driving away, I pulled into a gas station and filled up the tank ... for only $20. Before I could screw the gas cap back on, a guy waiting for his SUV to gulp down its huge meal came over. He seemed intrigued, perhaps even envious. "Is it electric?" he asked.
Again, we were at a gas station. Yet I forgave the man his confusion. The ForTwo, nearly 4 feet shorter than a Mini Cooper, looks precisely like the sort of vehicle into which Ed Begley Jr. would origami his gangly frame.
Mine was a convertible, done up in a crisp silver metallic. Inside, the car is surprisingly roomy and, true to its name, cleverly designed. The passenger seat is set back several inches to make the driver's view more panoramic and give the passenger a bit more legroom.
If the driver's flying solo, he can fold the passenger seat flat, turning it into a table with a built-in cupholder. A cargo shelf in back holds enough luggage for a business trip, and the dashboard offers plenty of cubby space for cell phones and BlackBerrys.
Behind the dash, and wrapped all around you, is a stout aluminum-and-steel safety cage. All in all, the ForTwo has that tightly assembled, cocoonlike Mercedes feel.
Driving the Smart offers occasional similarities to piloting its upmarket siblings too. My house is at the end of a winding hillside road, and the ForTwo, with its wheels pushed far into its corners, handled the curves with go-cart aplomb.
That said, the three-cylinder turbocharged engine, while an aluminum miracle at only 130 pounds, certainly can't be mistaken for a Mercedes V-8. Soon I learned to stop flooring it and let the engine and the six-speed manu-matic transmission do their thing at a more leisurely pace, freeing me to wave at gawking kids and roll down the window to answer the endless string of questions.
In fact, I became a rather shameless huckster. Knowing that Mercedes previously aborted its plans to launch the Smart in the States at the 11th hour, I decided to do my part to build some buzz for the brand's impending arrival.
I drove right into the heart of my village on a crystalline, farmers'-market Sunday and looked for a place to park. All the curbside spots were taken, but that didn't deter me.
I simply found a gap between two parked cars and pulled in. Perpendicularly. With the front wheels squared against the curb, the Smart's little rear end didn't stick out much past the cars next to it. Having sufficiently captured the attention of the strawberry-nibbling crowd, I got out and started chatting them up.
That's right, I explained: 60 miles per gallon. Starts at about $12,500 in Europe. Yes, I agreed, it's about time. Whether or not the automakers are ready to hear it, on this sunny summer day in the U.S. of A., their customers were talking quite a lot - and the topic of conversation was, of all things, the limitless opportunity that is small.
Andrew Tilin is a former Business 2.0 senior editor.