Smart for Dummies

The news that Roger Penske will distribute Smart cars in the United States hits very hard. In fact, I feel betrayed. The man who has been responsible for so much great racing and for nothing more odious than yellow rental trucks is introducing these daffy little transportation modules. Woo-hoo! I haven't paid too much attention to Smart cars, although ever since my local supermarket acquired a new fleet of shopping carts with cupholders, I might already have grasped the basics.

A principal problem with the Smart is the inability to say its name without adding "car." Maybe this is due to the fact that we already have smart airbags, adaptive transmissions, and sooner or later intelligent highways. Maybe it's to reassert that, indeed, it is a car. Or it could be something to do with the time-proven difficulty of pressing an adjective into service as a noun. (There used to be a rock band called The Sweet, which always caught me off-balance.) Strictly speaking, in this instance of noun-building, the letter "s" is needed. As in: "He had the smarts to get into Princeton." Not as in: "He has a garage full of Smarts."

I can already foresee the difficulty of explaining to elderly family members that I'm test-driving a Smart ForTwo or a Smart ForFour. They'll think I'm reviewing low-cal sandwiches for Cooking Light. Any of my uncles is likely to say, "What the hell is that? You say it's a Smart? Who makes it? I don't see anything too smart about a car that looks like it ran into the wall. Where's the rest of it? Damn, Mercedes sure has gone downhill." There will yet remain the difficulty of enumerating the technical specifications. I can just hear my Uncle Mike: "A three-banger with seven hundred cubic centimeters? Can it do zigzag? Embroidery stitches?" (Actually, I'm probably overestimating Uncle Mike's knowledge of advanced features in sewing machines.) Then I'd try to explain--I always find myself in these impossible situations, and feeling oddly defensive--that it's a city car. This would be comparable to the era when "road car" was in vogue for such otherwise presumably useless devices as the Porsche 928. To my wife's query as to the meaning of this, I'd reply, "You know, like, water boat."

But my biggest worry about the Smart car is that here we go on another trend like the Prius. Before you know it, Jen Aniston will arrive at an awards ceremony in a Smart ForTwo, and she'll bad-mouth the bulbous hybrid as "too heavy ... lumpy ... like cellulite is building up." The rage will begin. And then, every party I go to for the next couple of years, I'll have to answer questions from earnest geeks who want to adopt this as the new panacea and need to know about the gas mileage.

Roger Penske will be to blame if it happens. Roger, I thought you were a car guy. Turns out, you're just an opportunist.

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