Until now, I had somehow managed never to get behind the wheel of any of the Smart cars we've had here at Automobile Magazine -- and quite honestly, I never felt any great desire to drive one. Intellectually, I appreciate the Smart as an economical city car, a car that is the polar opposite of SUVs that guzzle gas and take up more than their fair share of space on our roads. Still, there are lots of subcompacts on the market that cost about the same as the Smart, also have very good fuel economy numbers, and are much more practical, with room for four people and more than a few bags of groceries. Plus, the Smart looks a little ridiculous. It may be at home in the old-world urban environs of Europe, where $8 or $9 per gallon gasoline and scarce parking spots make it a viable choice, but it looks like it got lost on its way to the circus here in the heart of the middle America.
Still, the time had come for me to drive a Smart car, and I was looking forward to spending a night (but no more than a night, mind you) with it. The first thing you notice when you walk up to a Smart is how small it really is. Its short, 73.5-inch wheelbase and 106.1 inch overall length make it extremely maneuverable and easy to park. In fact, I could likely have fit two Smart cars parked nose to tail in just one stall of my two-stall garage. The interior is pretty much a no-frills place, but everything you really need -- climate controls, stereo, gauges -- is there and very easy to use.
Once underway, the behavior of the automatic transmission immediately grabs your attention - the shifts take so long that it's as if the engine has been deliberately paused for two or three seconds before the next gear is selected. The first time it happened, while I was still in the parking garage, I actually stopped because I thought I'd left the parking brake engaged. Still, once you get going, the 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine is capable of cruising at 75-80 mph on the highway for long distances. The wind will buffet you around on a blustery day or when you're passing an eighteen-wheeler, however.
The Smart has never quite fulfilled the promise that it held when it was first launched a few years back. In the month of March, only 425 Smarts were sold nationwide (down 37% from March of 2010), and year-to-date sales total less than 1300. It remains to be seen whether the rising price of gas can help Smart sales rebound or whether more mainstream subcompacts, which are increasingly returning 40 mpg, can fill the Smart's market niche.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor