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.