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By Tom Blakemore

smartcar

A couple of days ago, I stopped off at Loeber Mercedes in Lincolnwood to take a look at the just-released smart cars. I’ve seen these tiny little vehicles all over Europe. In France they are parked in every conceivable and improbable place (including every sidewalk in Paris).

They’ve been available for sale in the United States since the end of January, and I was curious to see what this version would be like.

The smart car –– the company doesn’t capitalize the name –– was developed by the inventor of the Swatch watch. It is manufactured by Mercedes Benz at a state-of-the-art new facility in France they call “smartville.” It is distributed in this country under an agreement with the Penske Auto Group.

The smart comes in one basic model: a two-seater, powered by a three cylinder, one liter, 70 horsepower Mitsubishi engine, capable of getting 36 mpg average (33 city, 41 highway).

On the highway, it can reach a top speed of 90 miles per hour and the transmission is an “automated manual” 5-speed that operates either by stick shift or paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

There are three cars to choose from: The Pure, The Passion and The Cabriolet –– a French term meaning beat the crap out of Volkswagen.
They run from $12,500 to $17,000 depending on the amenities.

Smart Cars in Action

The smart is just over eight feet long (106 inches) and five feet wide (61.4 inches), which means that one can be parked on a sidewalk and two can fit in the standard American car parking space.

Leaving out the outside influences of semi-trailers passing you at 80-miles-an-hour in the middle of a winter snowstorm, it’s a pretty good car for getting around Chicago.

When I walked into the showroom, the smart car seemed to smile at me.
The front grill, with an upward curve, catches your eye. The silver metal oval lines on the body trace the steel safety cage that protects the occupants from crashes. [From all reports, the vehicle is quite safe because of this and the standard four airbags and the collapsible crumple zones of the body.]

For the eco-minded, let me add . . . the car’s exterior is made of recycled, high-impact, flexible plastic panels. They are ding-resistant and, if dinged, are easily replaced. Replace them all, and you can have a new color car.

Mercedes offers a body kit so you can mix and match the color scheme of your car (for a price, of course – a complete change-over takes about two hours).

The interior is surprisingly roomy – for the passengers. Headroom wasn’t an issue (even for my 6’1” frame) and there is plenty of elbow space. But there isn’t much room left for anything else. Getting in and out is easy and the sight lines are superb (except for rear vision – because of the integrated headrests in the molded seats, seeing between them in the mirror might be an issue). And I should note the interior doesn’t seem “cheap” in any way. It comes with an optional six CD changer, heated seats, and a standard leather- wrapped sport steering wheel.

There is a small cargo area (12.8 cubic feet) behind the seats (and over the engine compartment) big enough for perhaps four to five paper grocery bags. As an urban runabout the layout is great, but don’t expect to go to the lumberyard with one. If the boards are short, the passenger seat does fold flat for a little extra storage.

Eco-Friendly

The smart company set out to become the most environmentally conscious auto manufacturer on the planet –– and by all indications have succeeded. Virtually the entire car is recyclable. If you damage or swap out the body panels, for instance, they are sent back to smart to be ground up and formed into another car.

The factory itself has reduced total emissions to the equivalent a town of 50 people would produce (as opposed to a city of 30,000 that a similar manufacturing operation normally would produce). And the company is committed to improving on those and other numbers yearly.

A Museum Piece

The smart is one of only six automobiles ever installed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the only one that is still manufactured and sold.
There is an unmistakable “cuteness” to the whole thing, but for some reason I can’t help but think of it as a “gadget. A very cool gadget, yes; but it has something of an iPhone appeal to it.

Somehow, I feel like these little cars just won’t make it in the United States, as much as I hope they do. The driving experience here is different than in Europe. Trips are generally longer and go along highways as opposed to narrow roads. I’m just not sure people are ready to face down an eighteen-wheeler in one of these.

I also doubt Americans will see the advantages of the smart’s easy parking. Our country is organized by parking meters and lines-on-pavement delineated spaces. The fact that you could fit two of these into a parking space is of little benefit if you end up with a ticket if you try.

I also have a few issues with the gas mileage. For a self-proclaimed “green” company, I’m disappointed it only gets 36 mpg. For its size and weight, I would think that they could at least equal the Toyota Prius in the 50-mpg range. And the fact that it’s sold through the Mercedes dealer network means that any service that needs done must be done at a Mercedes dealership with the attending service rates.

In the end, I don’t think this will be your only car. It is probably a second (or even third) car in the driveway.But as a commuter or urban runaround, the smart is one decidedly stylish way to go.

The smart went on sale the last week in January, but you can’t take possession of one just yet. For a $99 fee, you can order one, but expect to wait ten to twelve months for delivery.


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