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Kelly Mahoney/Medill News Service

Parallel parking the smart fortwo is a breeze. The car is just less than 9 feet long.


Test driving a smart two-seater

by Kelly Mahoney
Feb 14, 2007


SMART_image2

Kelly Mahoney/Medill News Service

While the smart fortwo's roomy interior comfortable accommodates passengers, storage space is hard to come by.

With the devastating price of gas from last summer still fresh in our minds, it’s no wonder that “efficiency” is this year’s Chicago Auto Show buzzword.

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, the Mercedes Car Group rolled out the smart fortwo, a super-compact vehicle that was featured in the movie “The Da Vinci Code.” The tiny two-seater gets anywhere from 40 to 80 miles per gallon and will be available in the United States in the first quarter of 2008.

I first fell in love with the smart when I was traveling in London five years ago. I joked that I could bring the cute car home in my carry-on bag. So as the ever-intrepid journalist, I took the liberty of test driving the quirky vehicle in Illinois’ diverse terrain.

Two problems: I have never driven anything smaller than a mid-sized sedan and it was snowing.  As I trekked over to the Budget Car and Truck Rental in Skokie, which owns three smart fortwos, I became concerned. My large, safe SUV was having a hard time in the blustery, slushy weather and I was about to drive a car that could probably fit inside of my current ride.

I asked someone behind the counter if this was going to be safe and he laughed. The smart’s ABS brake and Electronic Brake-Force Distribution Control brake systems would be able to handle the snow, I was assured. Besides, I know that it snows in at least some of the 36 countries where the smart is currently sold.

Indeed, when I got in, I discovered the car was intelligent enough to know it was snowing outside. A yellow light even flashed when I was going over icy roadways.

But I was still nervous. The first thing that I noticed is that the car does not idle forward. The driver has a choice between automatic and manual transmission. Being a modern woman with no knowledge of how to drive stick shift, I chose the automatic, which was an ordeal in itself. You must apply the brake, shift out of reverse and into first, release the parking brake and press a button.

Even then, I wasn’t prepared for that familiar jerk in between the car’s three gears. After I got used to the shift shock, I quickly settled into the car’s surprisingly roomy interior. The two seats have ample head and leg room, although storage is understandably at a premium. The smart’s Web site, www.smartusa.com , claims the trunk can accommodate a set of golf clubs, but I think those would have the be child-sized. Don’t expect a glove box, although there is a change tray and some cubby holes for maps and driving necessities.

On my European test drive, I decided to do something decidedly American – I went through a fast-food drive through, where I got some of the strangest looks. I’m pretty used to it by now, as I drive a Honda Element, but the little girl that waved at me was particularly adorable. Only after I went through the drive through did I realize that alas, the smart does not have cup holders. I discovered there was a cup holder on the back of the passenger seat, which presumably flipped down, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Then, I decided to try parking the diminutive ride. I’ve never been one keen on parallel parking, but it’s pretty self explanatory in the smart. In fact, the 9-foot-long smart fits head-first into parallel spots, although I’m not sure which meter to feed then.

But when I got back in the car, I had a hard time restarting the car. There is a procedure for starting the car that I had to try a few times before grasping it. Luckily, I didn’t have to call the rental place in shame.

As I speeded back to the rental place, I contemplated how fast a car the width of my couch could go. The car has a good pickup and kept up with the semi-truck that I was convinced didn’t see me or wanted to run me over.

The Web site says the car will top out at about 90 mph and the speedometer goes up to 80, but since my last speeding ticket, I decided that I shouldn’t do anything illegal in such a visible car.

I was quite sad to return the car to Skokie Budget Branch Manager John Mlynarczyk, who said they typically rent the smart out three times per week. He said they bought the cars from a dealership in Arizona for $25,000 a pop, although smart company says the cars will sell for a less than $15,000 when they debut in the U.S.

Mlynarczyk said the cars are a novelty item and hits to the company’s Web site, www.i-am-smart.com, have tripled since the cars hit the North Shore roads six months ago.

Regardless, expect this loyal big-car driver to be at the top of the list for the zippy little fortwo in 2008.