Greensboro Gets StreetSmart

September 2, 2007

Mercedes-Benz and Smart are currently touring the country to give eager fans of the Smart Fortwo an early look. Various models of the automobile have been a hit in Europe since it debuted in 1998. Its micro size gives the car an ability to park almost anywhere, which tends to come in handy on the narrow streets of European capitals. The “StreetSmart” tour, as is being called in the U.S., finally came to Greensboro this weekend, and so my friends Talos & Rachel Tsui and I packed up and headed out to the Shops at Friendly center to get a good look and test drive the Fortwo.

The sign-up and waiting period for the test drive lasted 2 full hours. Thankfully the weather was cooler than it’s been in recent memory, with gray skies that kept the beating sun off of us and the hundreds of other people waiting to get their hands on the wheel. We queued up through a high-tech trailer lined with safety videos and technical illustrations of the car as we wound our way out back, closer and closer to the car. The entire event reminded me of being in line for Space Mountain at Disney World, except there were no screaming kids and it was free.

The Fortwo has what Smart calls “automated manual transmission”. If that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Once inside the car, the Smart representative informed me that the transmission does more work for you than a manual, but I quickly found it isn’t an true automatic either. With the push of a button, you can leave the car in “automatic” and it will shift in and out of the appropriate gears. However, at any time, you can begin to shift manually using either of the paddle shifters nested on the steering wheel, or via the more traditional shifter on the floor. I quickly found that shifting manually was not only more fun, but resulted in a smoother drive as well. I’m told the car is still geared for European roads and the shift timing will be improved for automatic mode prior to its official launch.

Overall I was surprised at how roomy the car was. I’m a big guy, and yet I had enough space to be comfortable, and was able to see out over the ultra-small hood and side windows easily. I had the pleasure of driving the cabrio convertible, which was especially fun on the streets behind the Shops at Friendly. According to Smart, the car will start at prices under $12K and should get an average of 40 mpg in the city, which is pretty good. The European market also has the option of a diesel engine, which I’m starting to get keen on thanks to more info from my friend Corey. No telling yet if the diesel version will be available in the United States.

All in all, the Smart Fortwo was a pleasure to drive and look at. Although the visual design of the Smart can’t help but bring a toy to mind, the car itself does not feel toyish in any way. The controls, materials and handling are all what you would expect from Mercedes-Benz. As an in-town commuter car, I think it would be ideal. Trips to work, the grocery store, and errands would all shine with the Fortwo. Obviously I’m not sure how it would hold up on long trips, or extended drives on highways crowded with impatient drivers. It was encouraging to see so many people waiting in line to test drive the Smart. Given the ever climbing price of gas, and the U.S.’s seemingly endless need for huge SUVs, the Smart may very live up to its name and help bring Americans, driving stylishly, into the 21st century.

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4 Responses to “Greensboro Gets StreetSmart”

  1. Joel Leonard Says:

    These cars are all over Paris and great for city driving. However I would not want to drive beside several 18 wheelers with one.

    I was surprised that my big a–6 foot 4, 280 pound frame) actually fit in this car. However, not sure how long it would be comfortable.

    What was also interesting is that it does not get even more gas mileage than it does.

    Some of the more spacious Toyota Scion X cars cost as much and get not as much but similar gas mileage with significantly more room.

    Well anyway, people can’t eat too many Joelburgers (thejoelburger.blogspot.com) if they plan on driving these cars.

  2. Ged Says:

    Joel,

    Currently the car that gets the best gas mileage in the United States is the Honda Insight. The Insight gets aprox. 60mpg in the city and 66 highway, but currently starts at $22K. A significant increase from the Smart’s $12K.

    The Prius gets similar mileage (60 city, 51 highway) but also starts around $22K.

    In contrast, the diesel hybrid version of the smart car consumes just 2.9 liters of fuel/100 km. In terms Americans can understand that translates to 81 mpg. So, if you were to drive 15,000 miles a year, you would only need to fill your Smart’s tank *20 times* in a single year.

    Unfortunately, the U.S. has to prove it wants the Smart before it can prove it wants the diesel version of the car. Baby steps.

  3. Christian Says:

    Ged,

    I’ll admit up front that I’m not the target audience for Smart, since I’m a bit of a horsepower junkie. But I completely appreciate the desire to motor more efficiently, and grant the Europeans their points for style.

    However, I vowed I would never give Smart a dime when of my money when I saw pictures of their outdoor campaign in South Africa: “German Engineering. Swiss Innovation. American Nothing.”

    (See http://billboardom.blogspot.com/2006/05/billboard-for-smart-car.html)

    Sure, it’s a matter of sophistication (and one’s own politics) that determines how insulting you find something like that. But for my part, I just can’t fund the anti-American pile-on. And companies like Daimler-Benz should know better than to try to sell on prejudice in a globally connected world.

    Glad smart people like you are seeking out alternatives, though.

  4. Ged Says:

    Christian,

    I’m not sold on the Smart just yet, but I am excited by the sheer *possibility* that the U.S. is going to get the car. Times are changing and I for one am glad.

    As for the Smart billboard, I am perfectly fine with it. Americans are arrogant and self serving when it comes to their global responsibility. Turn about is perfectly fair play for a country that re-named its French Fries “Freedom Fries”, boycotted France, and said that Germany was part of “old Europe”. There is a huge swell of anti-americanism in the world today thanks, in large part, to the Bush administration and their disastrous policies. If playing off of these feelings helps Smart sell cars, I say more power to them.


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