City Car Comparison

Sam Smith
Jim Fets

The same can't be said for the Smart. After a few miles, the ForTwo's drawbacks emerge. Yes, it's cheap, and yes, it slices through traffic, but it's not very adept at real-car duty. Ride quality is good on smooth pavement, but over nasty, pothole-ridden streets - is there any other kind in New York? - the ForTwo falls apart. The ride becomes choppy and crashing. In the wet, a sharp lift of the throttle or sudden turn-in breaks loose the ForTwo's tail (motto: "Germany! Bringing you the finest in rear-engine weirdness for more than eighty years!"), and the standard electronic stability control takes a lifetime and a half to intervene. Icing on this very small, very compromised little cake includes optional power steering that simply feels dead, a reluctant and rough automated manual transmission, and grabby, unfriendly brakes. All in all, it leaves us wondering: what good is a city car that isn't comfortable in the city?

The Ford Focus coupe is the Smart's exact opposite: large, cushy, and more comfy than a broken-in couch. The $16,695 Focus SES is a stark visual departure from previous Focuses, and although its looks leave a little - OK, a lot - to be desired, ride quality is at least on par with that of much more expensive iron. New York streets often resemble paved motocross tracks, but compared with the Smart, the Focus trundles along as if sprung on mattresses. Wrapped in relative comfort, we traipse across Brooklyn to our next stop: Ba Xuyên.

If Bocca Lupo is cheap for its location and quality, then Ba Xuyên is just cheap, period. Three and a half bucks buys you a hefty sandwich carved out of a crispy, fluffy, authentic French baguette.

The entire restaurant is the size of a one-car garage, a tiny white room in the middle of an any-ethnicity-will-do Brooklyn neighborhood. (Jewish grocery? Check. Mexican grocery? Check. Chinese restaurant? Check.) The restaurant's storefront is stuffed into a noisy commercial block on 8th Avenue, and while it doesn't look like much, more than a few people told us that it was the best place for bánh mì - a Vietnamese sandwich - in the city.

We order a little bit of everything - sandwich-fill options range from a seemingly endless selection of pork to the oddly named Chicken Fu - along with a bunch of scary-sounding but nevertheless tasty drinks with labels like "Wonderfarm Tamarind." The rich, salty, and tender pork sandwich is our favorite. Pickled daikon (a type of Asian radish); sweet carrots; big, leafy hunks of cilantro; sweet chili sauce; garlicky mayonnaise; and other tasty veggies nestle in the baguette alongside the pork. The sweet, tart, smooth, spicy, tender, crunchy mix makes your toes curl and your eyes roll back.

After we pile into the cars and leave Brooklyn, things take a turn for the difficult. An unexpected snowstorm has thrown traffic asunder; the Bronx is now out of the question, leaving only Queens and Staten Island within striking distance. We glance at a map, take a quick look at the falling snow, and make our decision.

As we head toward Queens, we realize that the true city car is a unique animal. You want low-end torque, lots of it, for squirting through traffic. You want a taut, long-travel suspension, so you can fly over bumps but still pop across an avenue just by thinking about it. And you want some semblance of sturdiness, because few places chew up cars like a big city.

An extended, higher-speed stint in the Ford soon reveals that, like the Smart, the Focus is a compromised city car. Previous Focuses boasted a lively chassis, a healthy amount of steering feedback, and well-damped body motions. No longer. While the new-for-2008 Focus shares its platform with the previous-generation car, it offers none of the original's personality or charm. Interior materials are disappointingly crude, throttle response is sluggish, and the newly retuned suspension means saying good-bye to the spritely agility the Focus was once known for. Topping things off, there also isn't enough low-end torque for point-and-squirt city driving.

On the surface, the $17,545 Saturn Astra XR four-door hatchback - a badge-engineered version of the German Opel Astra - fits the city-car bill. It's small, nimble, and European. The wide streets and open feel of Queens suit the Astra, and while it seems fairly expensive in this company, that price gets you decent (if a bit dead on-center) steering feel and remarkable suspension tuning. The Saturn likes to dance, whether it's sideways up a twisting on-ramp or flitting across Queens Boulevard.

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