After years of on-again, off-again false starts, the Smart ForTwo is finally headed to the land of the free and the home of the Escalade. If you've traveled anywhere exotic in the past few years, to places such as Europe or Canada, you've likely seen the original Smarts scooting around and dicing up traffic like motorized pygmies on speed. Depending on your point of view, you've either thought, "Those things would never work in America," or "Golly, I wish we had those in America." Well, soon enough we're going to find out which camp is right, because Roger Penske is bringing the second-generation Smart two-seater - in coupe and ragtop forms - to his vast dealer network, and he's promising that a $99 deposit will get you a Smart of your own within six months. So far, 30,000 people have signed up for that deal, so it appears that the Age of the Microcar is off to a good start.
But what about the rest of us, those who haven't plunked down a deposit? This is undoubtedly an intriguing car, but does it really live up to its name? Is it, in fact, a smart alternative to more conventional compact cars like the Chevy Aveo or the Honda Fit? We headed to Phoenix, one of the two initial launch cities (San Francisco being the other) to find out.
Now, Smart's U.S. Web site includes a "frequently asked questions" section, but it's somewhat lacking in answers for the real questions that run through your head when you climb behind the wheel of a car that measures 40 inches less from nose to tail than a Mini Cooper. Questions such as, "Will passing an eighteen-wheeler on the highway cause me to wet my pants?" and "Will girls laugh at me?" After 655.7 miles, we think we've got some answers.
Is it scary on the highway?
This is my first question, since the Smart dealership in Phoenix is immediately off I-10. Less than a mile into my ForTwo initiation, I'm buzzing along in the fast lane, headed for the Grand Canyon (I've never been there, and I'm always up for a good dichotomy). Route 17 out of Phoenix features a 75-mph speed limit and climbs to elevations that make Denver look like the Dead Sea. If the Smart can cut it here, it'll probably handle the highway portion of your morning commute without making you feel like you got the slow car at the go-kart track.
With a 70-hp three-cylinder hanging over the rear wheels, the ForTwo doesn't have a surfeit of power, but it will climb to an electronically limited 90 mph (which our test car's apparently optimistic speedometer reads as 95 mph). The problem is, at Western highway speeds, you're constantly at the edge of the performance envelope. It's a little bit like driving a race car in that you're always looking far down the road and planning how to exploit every last drop of performance at your disposal. For instance, if you're approaching a hill, you click the left paddle and drop the five-speed sequential manual transmission from fifth down to fourth to spike the revs before you hit the incline, because if you wait until you're already there, it's too late - momentum is a precious commodity in the Smart ForTwo.
Choosing your line is also important in the Smart, because at 80 mph, you don't want to make a lot of steering corrections. Occasionally I'll pass an eighteen-wheeler and get buffeted with a crosswind, which sets up a white-knuckle seesawing at the wheel - the Smart's short wheelbase equates to agility around town, but on sweeping interstate bends, it's easy to find the chassis corkscrewing down the road as you try to get back on line.
That said, I find a perverse enjoyment in driving the Smart on the highway. In most modern cars, doing 80 mph on the interstate is an exercise in tedium - set the cruise control and try not to fall asleep. In the Smart, you're constantly involved in the driving experience. For instance, there's a detent at the bottom of the accelerator's travel, and pushing through it triggers a downshift, sort of the Smart's version of kicking in the secondaries on a four-barrel carb. Once you've downshifted, you can leave your foot on the floor and upshift back into fifth using the paddles, thus dropping revs a bit while allowing full throttle. Using this technique, I can sail up hills without pegging the tach at redline, provided I pull in tight behind our Dodge Nitro support vehicle. That's right, I'm a Dodge-drafter. I see a line of Smarts and they're all painted black.
All told, the Smart will handle any reasonable highway situation you throw at it, but you need to maintain situational awareness at a higher level than in most other cars. You may not be relaxed, but you're never bored, either.
How does this save the earth?
A guy at a rest stop actually asks me this question. Alternate queries along this theme include, "Is it electric?" "How many miles per gallon does it get?" and "Is that a reservation cart?" (I'm not even sure what a reservation cart is, but that's what the guy at the Grand Canyon ticket booth asks as I buy my pass.)