“Sara! Want new SmartCar? Txt yes or no quick!”
Such a text message from your mother might be odd in some families, but not in mine (Mom sells cars faster than bootleg Louis Vuittons and also wields a mean text thumb). I didn’t hesitate. “Yes! Pics!”
I didn’t need a test drive. I’d been tooling around in an old, albeit fun, Jeep for several years. Well, fun when I lived in Pacific Palisades, California and a big day was driving to the beach four blocks away. My first winter in San Francisco with a canvas-topped Jeep – make that my first summer in San Francisco – was an exercise in austerity. I guess I was going for that weathered ski bunny look or at least that’s what I’ll claim in my memoirs. After some nine months of driving in all manner of weather with the plastic windows rolled up a boyfriend helpfully pointed out that they come down. Aha! That’s what those big, dangling zipper pulls were for! Who knew?
Weirdly, the Tesla roadster is not yet in my budget, so I’d resigned myself to driving my Jeep until the wheels fell off and simply parking a generous mile or three away from any green event I attended when the lucky text came.
Lest you have any worries about the safety of the SmartCar, let me assure you, it’s super sturdy. I know this because my mother managed to get into a wreck before I even took possession of my new car. Wasn’t that nice of her to test it out? To be fair, the collision wasn’t her fault. The guy in the SUV was just confused. Didn’t she know the golf course was two turns back?
This being a SmartCar, they don’t really have replacement bumpers just lying around, so I had to wait nearly a month for the damaged caboose to be repaired. (Mom emerged unscathed, caboose intact.)
Accident now out of the way, I made the trek to the homestead in Washington to pick up my little bean and bring it back to the Bay. And I have to tell you, the people you meet at gas stations and rest stops sure are caring folks. I’ve never before felt the likes of such popularity or perhaps I should say, worry.
Parked flush with our publisher’s hybrid Honda
More than once: “Are you safe in that thing?”
Chewing lower lip with concern: “Is that allowed on the freeway?” (We’ll find out!)
The polite: “How much did you pay for…that?”
And the distinctly thoughtful: “What is that?”
That, I’ll have you know, buzzed down the five at 75 mph all the way home with no trouble at all save for a few belches from semi-trucks.
Now, the Smart is what I would call an “active driving experience” – think a stubborn 3 Series. If you like being the boss of your hunk of steel as opposed to rolling over pavement like a stale marshmallow you’ll enjoy the way the Smart handles. What you may or may not enjoy are the looks. And chuckles. And pointing. And being flagged down from three blocks away by really cute men. Which finger you display all depends upon your personality and relationship status.
Smarty has some surprises up its cage. I call it the “Alice in Wonderland effect”. While resembling a glorified jujubee on the outside, the thing is damn near cavernous inside. I wouldn’t say it’s palatial on a scale of the Hummer, but the interior is so roomy you soon forget you’re in half a car. Of course, if you need a reminder just look in the backseat. Kidding! There isn’t one.
The Alice effect is so pronounced you’ll want to be extra alert – I have to remind myself every time I drive that just because I can dart in and out of traffic like a Tonka Toy on Red Bull doesn’t mean I should. This is a car for defensive drivers only. That said, it’s very solid for its size at 1800 pounds, earned a 5-star safety rating, and of course it’s loaded to the crannies with airbags. In other words, this is a blowfish waiting to happen.
Other features include a non-retractable “panorama” sun roof that is virtually the entire top of the vehicle (think Jurassic Park but without the dinosaur part) and lots of clever storage spots and witty accents for design geeks to love. True, the spare tire may be ridiculous, but the engine’s in the trunk – how cool is that? You won’t have much use for such convenient placement, however, as even after two road trips the machine didn’t sip so much as a drop from its two-quart oil well. (Oh, the satisfying sentence this writer has to forgo because they couldn’t make it pint-sized. Wholeness eludes my post – and let’s be honest here, my soul – once again.)
My model, the Passion, is the less pricey version but still comes pretty well-equipped with leather, daytime running lights, AC and tiptronic shift control. And being a web marketing gal, I appreciate the cool social network, Destination Smart, that doesn’t suck a digital egg, unlike Chevy’s Voltage. (I always loved MINI cooper’s marketing but never did fork over the cash.)
For a 1.0 liter, 70 horse, 3-cylinder car, there’s a pleasing amount of get-up-and-go. It’s not my turbo Volvo T5 of yesteryear, but one could call it zippy with a straight face. The only thing that took some getting used to for this stick-shift girl was the oddball gear transitioning: it’s an automated manual transmission. After two months of ownership, though, I only really notice the shift lag when my espresso bean is puffing up to the crest of Franklin. My friend, Nancy, likes to pat Smarty’s dash and say, “Come on, you can do it!” If you want more power, you can go with the BRABUS model (BRABUS as in Mercedes, the maker of SmartCar; there’s also the starter model, Pure, as well as the new cabriolet).
Already in need of a bath…
Anyone who has had to fork over $30 for parking in San Francisco can appreciate the Smart. While I have yet to perform a perpendicular parking job, the bean has been invaluable for errands and evenings out in the city. San Francisco, by design, has an abundance of short curbs between townhouse driveways that are often empty as only motorcycles and sub-compacts have a prayer of fitting in. But these almost-spaces are perfect for Smarty!
And oh, the gas mileage. I go weeks without filling up and look back fondly on my trips to Napa and, yes, the South Bay. Thanks to a respectable sound system and supportive seats with butt warmers even jaunts to San Jose are dreamy. I do get pulled over by cops quite a bit more now (what, you don’t?), but then I also get out of the tickets so it kind of works out!
Moving along. Road trip numero uno under my belt for the grand total of $35 in gas (Smarty’s tiny tank takes premium only, baby), I thought, where to next?
Westside girl and EcoSalon writer, Kim, had her birthday at the beginning of July, so it was off to LA for me. Despite all the heels and dresses and handbags five days in Los Angeles requires, the Smart has surprisingly ample storage. So at the last minute I thought, what the hell, I’m bringing the cat. I’m sure she’ll be as thrilled as I to see the old stomping grounds, right? Besides, cats love long car rides almost as much as they like being deposited for slumber parties with dogs at your buddy’s SoCal house. It’s one, big happy family!
My cat, Roo, on the road…
Roo upon learning she’ll be staying with dogs.
There’s no rating standard for this at Consumer Reports, but I’ve never seen a cat or rather my cat behave so well on a road trip. I mean, I’m not in the cats-on-road-trips business or anything, but surely this counts in Smart’s favor. Roo, a queenly Maine Coon, curled up in her carrier the entire way sans sedative, only occasionally popping her large, fluffy head out to remind me that I was in the presence of greatness.
Unfortunately, once in LA I took a curve on Sunset a tad too sharply, causing her to tumble out – of the carrier, relax! – and having figured out that she was not actually confined to her travel case, all subsequent driving was less than festive. The psychological jig was up. Ever tried putting a cat back into anything? Pandora had it easier. Once again, kudos to the SmartCar’s handling.
Two big road trips for a mere Benjamin later, I love my Smart even more. The only problem is that now I want to drive everywhere. Meet me for mojitos at the Parker in Palm Springs? I do have a birthday coming up!
Images: Claire Gordon, Sara Ost