Quick View – (the) smart (car)

I’d like to start this post by mentioning, much as I did with the Quick View on the Mini, that apart from in the title, I will be capitalizing the name of the Smart car in the way the English language requests we treat proper nouns, and not continually refer to it as the “smart,” as the folks at Smart headquarters in Germany would like. Apparently they read a lot of e.e. cummings while on the john over there, and didn’t realize that naming their new car the “smart” would just be “silly.”

(And since Smart is owned by Mercedes-Benz much the way Mini is owned by BMW, now nobody can accuse me of brand favoritism. Ha!)

But other than its name, the Smart car seems at first glance an admirable automobile. Designed as the ideal car for Europe’s narrow city streets, tiny parking spaces and expensive fuel, the Smart is designed to take up as little room as possible while making plenty of room for its occupants. Kind of like the Mini. (You’ll probably notice a lot of similarities between those two as time goes on.)

The Smart was first proposed, strangely enough by Swiss watchmaker Swatch, apparently seeking a new market to cover with funky-colored Hello Kitty pictures. While the Hello Kitty Kar campaign may have never taken off, the other focus of the car – to make a vehicle as long as a parking spot is wide, allowing them to perpendicular park in a parallel spot and really fuck with Driver’s Ed teachers everywhere – turned out to be a good idea. Swatch sent out some feelers to find someone accustomed to building devices larger than a quarter, and eventually found a willing partner in Daimler-Benz (parent company of Mercedes-Benz. Don’t ask why one name is different.).

The first Smarts launched onto European roads in 1997, eventually experiencing heavy financial losses and disputes that caused Swatch to pull out of the partnership. Daimler-Benz, undaunted, pulled Smart along by introducing several new models. To complement the initial model, called the “Fortwo,” Smart unveiled a four-door hatchback called the “Forfour,” a sleeker, lower “Roadster” model, and a few other odds and ends along the way.

Of course, most of this was happening back in the glorious days of the late 90s and early 2000s, when we Americans couldn’t have given two farts about a fuel-sipping microcar. Gas was cheap! An oilman was president! The world loved us! Global warming a problem so far in the future, we’d find a way to deal with it  between the Terminator uprising and the Borg invasion. Life was good.

Then, suddenly, it all hit the fan.

So when the second-generation Smart was being readied a couple years ago, a few notable folks in America happened to let slip that they, in fact, might be interested in bringing this little car to our shores. Suddenly, it’s 2008, and voila! Smarts are available for legal sale in the land of Comin’ Again To Save The Motherfuckin’ Day.

So, now that we understand how these little cars came to be, let’s take a look at them. The current, second-generation Smart comes in three flavors here in America: “pure” (el cheapo), “passion” (political statement), and “passion cabriolet” (Hollywood political statement). All three are powered by the same engine, a 1.0-liter three-cylinder cranking out an epic 70 horsepower and an equally stunning 68 lb-ft of torque. Car and Driver tested a 1815-pound Passion coupe, and managed to coax a 14.4 second 0-60 time out of it. Transmissions are equally limited, the only choice being whether you choose to slot the five-speed semiautomatic transmission into “manual” and “automatic.” 

So, if all the engines line up the same, what sets the different models apart? Well, let’s start with a radio. Yes, that’s right, the base “pure” model doesn’t come with a radio. It’s equipped for one, coming with an antenna, twin speakers, and an iPod jack, but the radio itself is conspicuously missing. Here’s what the “pure” does come with: 15″ wheels and tires, a tire pressure monitoring system, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift, coin holder (ooh!), ABS and ESP, four airbags, and keyless entry. Air conditioning, metallic paint, a radio, power steering (holy shit!), and something called a “silver metallic tridion safety cell,” which sounds incredibly awesome but, given that it only costs $175, probably isn’t.

Next up the line is the Passion coupe, which throws in most of the above, except power steering and the silver metallic tridion safety cell. (I just had to put that in again. I mean, come on! Doesn’t that sound like something they’d have on the starship Enterprise? You know, the ship is being engulfed by a space amoeba and is about to be torn apart until Spock rerouts power through the silver metallic tridion safety cell, giving them enough time for Scotty to fix the warp core and they blast the hell out of there? Good times.)

But the options for the Passion don’t stop there. (I’d like to point out that both “additional instruments” and “solid roof” are listed as optional on the car.) Premium stereo costs $350, while the “comfort package” gives you good ol’ power steering, heated leather seats, and auto-off headlamps.

The line tops out at the Passion cabriolet, a fancy German word for convertible, which comes with the super-stereo standard in order to counteract the wind roar that shows up when you lower the “infinitely adjustable” power soft top. (Silver metallic tridion safety cell remains optional, but highly recommended, especially if you choose to forgo aftermarket phasers for your Smart.)

Of course, one place the Smart wins a lot of its friends is on price – and that price is damned low. Crazy low, it seems, for a car that was built by Mercedes-Benz. The Pure starts at $11,590. Yes, under twelve grand can buy you a German-engineered two-door with an engine, four wheels, an entire driveable car. (Space travel not recommended unless you purchase the silver metallic tridion-

Okay, enough of that tridion joke. You’ve beaten it to death.

Are you kidding? It’s still got miles to go! Besides, how could you beat it to death, it’s a silver metal-

Cut it out. Now. I am so not joking about this. 

All right. Can I make one more joke about it?


What about if it’s not a Star Trek joke, just a joke about-


What about if I told you that this entire dialogue was actually the joke, and you’ve been playing along the whole time?



A-hem. Anyway, the better equipped Passion coupe starts at $13,590, while the Passion cabrio begins moving off dealer lots for $16,590.

The other way the Smart makes friends is its cuteness. Cuteness is, admittedly, in the eye of the beholder, but it’s probably safe to say the Smart manages to look sweet in the same way a ladybug does. (However, if you ever see a red Smart with black polka-dots, they probably have some serious loneliness issues. Get them a pet.) 

However, the Smart does have two unfortunate strikes against it. First of all, its small size – while attractive in principle – does make it a bit intimidating to drive on American roads, with American-sized cars and trucks and American-sized lanes. For those handful of places in the U.S. where the streets resemble those of Europe’s cities, the Smart’s size will indeed be a boon – for everybody else, it’ll probably just be a reminder that your car will always be a bit of a stranger in a strange land.

The second, less forgiveable flaw, is the fuel economy of the car. The Smart is rated at a mere 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the highway; with only 70 horsepower, you’ll probably be seeing figures a lot closer to the latter if you intend to keep up with traffic. C/D only got 32 mpg. You can get similar mileage from a lot of other cars in its price range – and you won’t feel like Spam in a can doing it.

So, in review: the Smart is tiny, weak, and doesn’t get the mileage it seems it should – but it’s the cheapest car you can buy these days, and it’s not bad to look at. For some, it will be the perfect car; for the rest of us, however, there are smarter choices available.

Even if they don’t come with silver metallic tridion safety cells. YES!


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