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Smart Cars “Smart” In Europe, But Are They in the US?

Anyone who’s lived in a city knows the woes of fuel prices and parking hassles. We’ve watched the tank drain between stoplights and we’ve driven around the block for hours to find that illusive parking space, backing into treacherously tight spots in the hopes that somehow the trunk will shrink a couple of inches by the time we cut the wheel right. Then come those uniformed wenches, scrupulously scribbling out fines for being an inch into the hydrant zone. When it comes to city life, cars are inefficient and inconvenient, but yet so many Americans just can’t give up that sweet taste of freedom.

The Smart Car solves many of the problems of navigating the urban jungle. It is a bite-sized nugget of a car that was designed by a Swatch manufacturer to careen through windy, narrow European streets and to fit into a fraction of a parking space. In fact, two Smart Cars can fit into one parking space, and when it comes to fuel efficiency they get 33 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway. While an all-electric Smart is in the works, for now the perks of the Smart Car are its gas efficiency and its compact nature. That being said, the Smart is essentially a moped with a roof. While it’s a smart product, the percentage of people the Smart Car caters to is about the size of its trunk.

Coming in three models, the Smart Fortwo Pure, the Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe, and the Smart Fortwo Passion Cabriolet, Smart Cars are just about the opposite of the mid-life crisis car. Speed peaks at 84, as its size combined with a lead foot make it a safety hazard. Consumers report that wind from bigger automobiles on the road sway the Smart, and its zero-to-sixty in 13 seconds puts it in a dangerous position on the highway entrance ramp. Worse, its boxy shape pushes the boundaries of style, sort of like the PT Cruiser. As much as they try, they just won’t ever be able to sit at the lunch table with the cool kids. Despite the success of the Smart Car in Europe, critics prophesy gloom and doom for the Smart: its “efficient” and “convenient” features are neither efficient nor convenient for most Americans. Americans value large amounts of private space, and for many the car is a roving home. No one can deny that the Smart is not ideal for the majority of Americans who tow kids to school, shop for a week’s worth of groceries, and travel vast distances to visit family.

The Smart is, unfortunately, counter-intuitive for suburban and rural America, dwarfed by its over-developed peers on the highway and stylistically odd. Its popularity struggles against hybrid technologies, like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid, which are flying off the lot. When compared to members of its fuel-efficient genus, the Smart comes in behind the Prius and Civic at 36 mpg combined highway and city driving, as opposed to 46 mpg and 42 mpg combined, respectively. But with a price tag at $11,590 for the Pure and $16,590 for the Cabriolet, it is a more fiscally conservative investment.

The futuristic nature of the Smart Car is its blessing and curse: it is the most socially responsible way to drive, but it can’t matriculate into the mainstream American market. The best place to be a Smart owner is in the city, where trips are short, parking is limited, and smog hovers. (However, in some cities parking two Smarts into one space is illegal, actually creating a waste of space!) Like the Mini Cooper, women, who look like Barbie dolls in the convertible Cabriolet, are more of a target market than men, who look stuffed into a matchbox car like Jean Reno in the 2006 Pink Panther remake. Despite the size, the Smart is considered to have plenty of legroom and a panoramic moon roof that gives the illusion of space. The modest trunk can fit a grocery load or luggage, and the front seat folds down for extra capacity.

The Smart Car’s funky features may be impractical for some and an eyesore for others, but Smart drivers cause heads to turn. It may not be the BMW Z4, but consumers report receiving interested, good-natured comments, questions, and chuckles at stoplights and parking lots. Like the VW Bug (“it’s ugly, but it gets you there”), the Smart could be a harbinger for the future of American driving. As fuel prices increase, we can hope that cars will begin to get smaller again, to the point that maybe soon the Smart will actually be the smartest car out there.

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