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The Time has Arrived: You can Order a SMART Car


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SEE ALSO:smart Crash Video and Story

By MARLON HANSON
Bumper to Bumper
Texas Auto Writers Association

There isn’t much that can tear me away from a SEMA show in Las Vegas. But, an invitation to be among the first to drive a new Smart car on American roadways is one of those very few things.

Readers will remember how much I liked the Smart car concept when I saw it at the Frankfurt Auto Show in September. I literally fell in love with the “baby Mercedes.” Why do I say Mercedes? Because the vehicle was conceived by Mercedes-Benz many years ago in conjunction with Swatch. Swatch later backed out, but Mercedes saw the benefits in such a vehicle and continued development of what would be a giant success in Europe.

Over 770,000 Smart cars have been sold on the continent and having seen one, I could hardly wait until it reached our shores.

I was actually quite surprised when the invitation to drive one came in because I hadn’t anticipated that the Penske Auto Group (US Distributor for Smart) would be quite this quick in getting American journalists behind the wheel.

But then, I should have known the launch would be quick and efficient. Dave Schembri, an automotive launch expert who is a true spark plug for any organization he works, is the President of “smart USA.”

It’s now time to explain why I have capitalized “Smart” thus far and left it in small letters inside quotes for the company name. After all, Dave will wonder why I have not followed the company line in discussing the vehicle.

The official name of the car is “smart fortwo.” Note: No Capitals and no space between the for and the two.

I have refrained from using the term fortwo thus far because I have heard it mispronounced (even by journalists who should be more “in the know.” One very knowledgeable person said the name really should be changed from fort-wo in that Americans wouldn’t understand it. You see, there are other ways to subdivide the syllables.

As for “smart,” I heard others in Germany comment that the translators weren’t too sharp in that they didn’t know the “S” should be capitalized as the first letter of the name of a vehicle.

Now that we have gotten those semantics out of the way, I will refer to Smart as smart fortwo in the rest of this article!

I picked up my smart fortwo just a few blocks from the San Francisco International Airport and immediately took to the road.

The “fortwo” part of the name became obvious. There were only two seats. Two large and comfortable seats, I might add. There is more room in the front of the smart car than in the front seats of any other vehicle I can remember – two seats or four. Summed up: Incredibly roomy.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I sensed a strange feeling as the transmission moved from first to second gear, then from second to third. “Oh, oh,” I thought. “This is not the smoothest shifting transmission I have ever experienced.”

By time I had travelled the thirty-some miles to the Computer History Museum (our first stop on the drive) I had figured out how to surmount my perceived transmission problem: use the paddle shifter.

On each side of the steering wheel is a small paddle shaped lever. To shift up, use the one on the right. To downshift, use the one on the left.

By using the manual mode, I was changing gears and accelerating like I was driving a sports car.

I hadn’t read any of the material on smart other than the original press release in Germany so I didn’t know what “smart” could do wide open. I thought I had read that the zero to 60 time was 19 seconds and that scared me. Thankfully, it wasn’t true.

Not that it is as quick as a Mercedes-Benz S-600 or AMG model but it was respectable for it’s size and price. I found no problem merging onto any freeway nor any problem getting the vehicle up to around 90 miles per hour, where it supposedly tops out. In discussing the car later with another journalist, I noted that the longer I drove smart, the more it seemed like it anticipated my actions. The reply: “Well, it’s name is smart. What do you expect!”

This is definitely the car to drive if you want to be noticed. I had more vehicles pass me, then slow down to drop behind me, then pull even with me – staring the entire time. The most notable interest came from a couple in a new Ferrari. They pulled ahead, dropped behind and then while at my side took a picture of the car and me driving it.

Quite the draw – from opposite ends of the pricing spectrum (smart starts at eleven and a half grand) to the lofty hundreds of thousands one can spend for the Italian supercar. Fortunately none the car’s admirers took their eyes off the road long enough to launch into me or anyone else.

I must say that smart is loaded with safety features, just like all Mercedes-built vehicles, so dangers are minimized in case of a mishap. Previous European smart models received top ratings in whiplash tests as well as crash tests in numerous analysis of real life accident situations.

In a safety demonstration, German engineers had walnuts on display next to the car. Why walnuts, one might ask ... to illustrate the tridion safety cell which protects passengers like the hard shell of a walnut.

Strategic areas of the vehicle are reinforced with high-strength steel and side skirts reaching from wheel to wheel to offer additional protection in case one is T-Boned. Think about it ... the entire vehicle is only about eight feet long (the wheelbase is only 73.5 inches) so imagine if one is hit – chances are the entire point of impact won’t be between the wheels in the soft sides like on a traditional vehicle. The entire frame, axle and wheels will act as a protective barrier for passengers…

If hit in the front, they will be protected by steel floor supports in front of the pedals with connecting plates in cross members to further distribute any energy generated in an accident. Front wheels are designed as part of a crumple zone to stop the car’s body from crumpling into the occupants.

Of course there are dual stage airbags which are “smart” enough to sense the severity of the impact. These bags operate in conjunction with other “smart” side airpacts and even a knee pad (standard on even the cheapest models).

It’s not usual to find a vehicle priced at under $12,000 that provides an electronic stability program (esp) and anti-lock brakes as standard. In fact, they often can’t even be bought as an option. But, smart provides these along with side satellite sensors which can detect a side crash in advance and trigger a myriad of safety features including head and thorax side airbags.

Airbag control mechanisms in side seat supports inflate quickly due to special gas generators and the sensors. From strong seat shells to steel door frames with solid cross-braces and even special interior trim everything acts to help protect the occupants. Tests on the new smart car show the following safety advantages:

• A frontal impact at 40 mph at 40 percent overlap against a deformable barrier.

• A frontal impact at 35 mph against a rigid barrier with 100 percent overlap in accordance with US-NCAP.

• A car-to-car compatibility test with a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, 50 percent overlap and an impact speed of 31 mph.

• A side impact at 31 mph against a deformable barrier.

• A side impact at 31 mph against a deformable SUV barrier.

• A side impact at 50 mph against a solid pole.

• A rear impact at 50 mph and 70 percent overlap with a deformable barrier.

And even

• A dynamic rollover test at 31 mph and two full overturns.

One would expect a vehicle only eight feet long to have excellent fuel mileage and the smart car does. Using figures most Americans are familiar with the smart car is rated at 40 mpg city and 45 mpg highway under 2007 measurement standards.

Industry wide standards, which will lower the numbers for all vehicles sold in the US will provide figures of 33 city and 40 highway using the 2008 EPA standards. I need to come back to something I mentioned took place at the beginning of my test drive of the new smart car – the lack of a smooth transition from gear to gear when placed in drive (automatic).

The smart car is a standard. Yes, I said standard. All it lacks is the clutch. For those Americans who haven’t mastered the dual foot and hand co-ordination needed to shift manually smart is “smart” enough to do the work for you.

They call their system an automated five-speed manual transmission. The shift delays between gears when one drives it as if it were an automatic are similar to one doing the physical work of pushing the clutch themselves.

The gear shift lever controls list Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive. All one needs to do in order to use the paddle shifts or the shift lever itself to accelerate the gear change operation for a sportier operation is to flip the gearshift to the left gate.

Very simple. Very “smart.” This is a vehicle I’m seriously considering going on line to order.

You see, a number of Mercedes dealers throughout the country will offer new smart cars, but you can “take the bull by the horns” and go to www.smartusa.com and pick the one you want. Over 30,000 Americans have done this so far and I’m sure that number will multiply greatly in coming weeks and months as more people learn about this cute little car.

Whether one is a baby boomer just finding an empty nest and needing only seats for two, a first time buyer, a city dweller, or simply someone who finds a new car for less than the price of many used cars a great option (and a new car built by Mercedes-Benz at that!) the new smart car is a very viable alternative.

Pricing – in a nutshell (should I say walnut-shell?) is as follows: Base model the fortwo Pure: $11,590. The fortwo passion coupe: $13,590. The fortwo passion cabriolet (convertible): $16,590.

Yes, of course there are options. You can customize these babies to your unique delight. But, those decisions are yours. The website with all the details is www.smartusa.com.