City Car Comparison

Sam Smith
Jim Fets

"Take a bunch of cars to New York City? On purpose? That has to be the dumbest damn idea I've ever heard."

Those are the words of Automobile Magazine's technical editor, Don Sherman. Sherman once lived in Manhattan, and Sherman likes driving.

"Well," I said, "the whole idea was to take cheap city cars to a big, expensive city. We figured that we'd try to find some good, cheap food while we were at it."

Grumbling noises emanated from the other end of the phone line, followed by silence. I started to say something, to utter some minor defense, but Sherman piped up again.

"Harrumph," he said. "Well, good luck with that."

This is the sort of reaction you get when people hear that you're attempting to spend a cheap weekend in the most expensive city in the country. Nevertheless, we - a handful of the Ann Arbor staff and I - headed for New York and the culinary unknown. We took along a Smart ForTwo, a Saturn Astra, a Scion xD, and a Ford Focus coupe - not the least expensive batch of small cars, but the newest and most interesting ones on the market. And as we plunged into the Holland Tunnel, Sherman's parting words echoed through my head: "Why in the hell would you ever want to drive in the five boroughs?"

We burst out of the Holland Tunnel into a stark winter day and are immediately cut off by a turbaned dude in a black Ford Crown Victoria. The Crown Vic, like much of the traffic around it, has no rear bumper.

By the next block, the truth is apparent - it's not just bumpers. Half of the cars in New York have some kind of cosmetic collateral damage, just as half of the cars in Michigan have salt-eaten rocker panels and half of the cars in Los Angeles are driven by people who use too much teeth whitener. Driving in Manhattan is a violent, deliberate ballet of steel. If there's any logic, it's in calculated audacity: Stick your nose into someone else's lane at the right time, and you have the lane. If they have a nose on you, you let them in. This works very well, except in those cases where you don't have a nose at all - like when you're driving a Smart ForTwo.

At less than nine feet long, the Smart appears to be the perfect city car. It's tiny. At $12,235 for the base coupe, it's cheap (our photo car was the $5000-pricier convertible). And with an EPA city fuel-economy rating of 33 mpg, it's relatively easy on fuel. What it lacks in crumple space and people-carrying practicality, it makes up for in maneuverability - the ForTwo is so small that you can literally put it almost anywhere you want. There's always space.

Regardless, Manhattan traffic is Manhattan traffic, and no matter what you're driving, it gets old fast. We pass up the cheap-eat possibilities of pizza-by-the-slice and dirty-water hot dog carts and bolt for the Brooklyn Bridge. We need room to stretch out.

Our first stop, Bocca Lupo, comes highly recommended - New York magazine included the bistro in its annual list of the city's best cheap food. Bocca Lupo is located on a quiet corner of Henry and Warren streets in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill neighborhood, and if you're not looking for it, you probably won't notice it. There's no sign, just some large, thin-framed windows buried among grande-dame brownstones and arching trees.

Bocca Lupo's lunch menu, a tidy, thickly laminated card, is filled with grilled panini and a host of delicate tramezzini (Venetian tea sandwiches), all of them between six and ten bucks each. (If this seems a little costly, remember the location; cheap is relative, and what plays in New York doesn't always play in Peoria.) The waitress brings out a handful of minimalist, tapas-style plates that makes what I would normally eat for lunch look like roasted pig poop. A butternut squash and pancetta bruschetta ($2.50), all crispy sweetness with cinnamon undertones, comes first. A tarragon chicken salad and arugula tramezzino ($6), blooming with tarragon and hand-pulled strips of delicate, tender chicken, is next. A prosciutto and piave panini ($9), crispy but not crunchy, moist but not oily, is last. We are amazed, blown away by finger food that actually makes us hungrier as we're eating it.

We roll out happy and full. So far, so good.

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