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2008 smart fortwo Review

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2008 smart fortwo Review
By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

San Jose’s Santana Row came as a bit of a surprise. Yes I’ve heard about it, it was supposed to be quite nice but never in my wildest dreams did I expect what I ‘ve found. A Bentley outside the new Tumi shop, a Maserati opposite a trendy Sushi bar, a somewhat stuck-up twit in a brand new Ferrari 430 trying to find a parking place and a smart outside the fancy if somewhat over rated Hotel Valencia. A smart? Between cars costing 10 times as much?! What was going on?

Well, it was the international launch of the latest smart fortwo. No, it is not a spelling mistake, this is exactly what the car is-a little gem for two people. Positively no more! The smart has been around for about ten years and it would be fair to say that early examples were badly assembled apologies of an automobile. There were all sorts of people and politics involved consequently it took a while to sort things out. In recent years more and more were sold in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and London as people came to the conclusion that anything bigger was a complete waste of time in crowded city centres. In some cities the authorities even allow two smarts on one parking meter, a huge help around Harrods in London or near the Ramblas in Barcelona. I could certainly see the logic of all that but New York? Los Angeles? San Francisco?

Well, as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating so when my good friend Ian Kuah and I climbed into the US version of the smart fortwo the anticipation was huge. I am 6 ft tall and didn’t quite know what to expect. Well, I needn’t have worried. The seats proved to be very comfortable indeed. The driving position was fine, as were the instruments. The automatic gearbox-with a manual option worked well although to get going at the lights the manual worked a lot better bearing in mind the tiny engine. Once on the road I felt perfectly safe until a huge Kenworth pulled up alongside. In spite of all the reassurances from the smart people I did feel rather intimidated.

Mind you, it didn’t stop me from cruising along at a steady 75 miles per hour staying with the commuter traffic without any problems at all. In the diamond lane between San Jose and San Francisco we were just part of the flow without any hassle whatsoever. Where can you get one? Well, smart had 1,400 applications from all over America, the numbers were whittled down to just 74. Logical if you think about it bearing in mind the likely geographical locations.

How much? Well, it depends on the specification. The basic model starts at $11,590, the coupe at $13,590 and top of the line cabriolet at a whopping $16, 590. A lot of money for a tiny car but it does include every conceivable extra. Whether it is the basic model or the top one if you are either a commuter-say from Marin to San Francisco or a couple with no huge Alsatians or grand children to carry the smart fortwo would be just the ticket for driving from Mill Valley to Sonoma for buying some wine and cheese.

Clearly, by its dimensions it has to be a niche car but one for which the economic climate is just right.

Interestingly enough the cars will be sold by a man more closely associated with racing at 200 miles per hour than with commuting at 20! It is none other than motor racing legend Roger Penske. Must admit I had no idea that the Penske Automotive Group has 307 retail automotive dealerships around the World. I did know that his Scottsdale facility is the envy of every other auto dealer in the World. I don’t think Daimler has too much to worry about regarding Penske’s support for the smart, the company had a turnover of over 11 billion dollars in 2006.

So what do we have at the end of the day? An exciting, 8.8 ft long newcomer with two seats, a top speed of 90 miles per hour and a fuel consumption of around 35 miles per gallon. Will it become an overnight success like the Mini? Will it become a cult car like the Prius? Only time will tell.