Toy? “The Da Vinci Code” car? Golf cart? Daimler Chrysler’s Smart car, already a huge hit in Europe, confused some US consumers at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, but distributor Roger Penske — one of the most successful racecar and track owners in motorsports, chairman of UnitedAuto Group, and no stranger to what makes a great car — is certain the mighty wonder is a perfect fit for urban US drivers.
What do urban-dwelling women want in a car? Safety, small environmental impact and driving ease and convenience rank at the top of this list, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Not to mention something cute. Rural and suburban women tend to travel longer distances and carry more stuff than urban dwellers, including more passengers. Urban women tend to use their vehicles for commuting back and forth to school or work, an average of less than three miles per trip, with fewer kids to lug around. The Smart is built with this driver in mind.Environmental impact
The two-passenger model has nearly double the fuel efficiency of standard passenger vehicles at about 40 to 50 miles per gallon. The small size and great fuel economy leaves a tiny environmental footprint. Purposely built to ease urban congestion, one or two people in a Smart, compared with the same number in a five-person sedan or large SUV, is a much more environmentally-friendly option, especially in tight cities such as Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.Smart has other environmental bonuses. The steel Tridion frame — we’ll get to that in a minute — is powder-coated, a process far less harmful to the environment than traditional paint methods. In addition, the lightweight plastic body panels are completely recyclable.Safety
Smaller cars, by their nature, are less visible than their behemoth SUV counterparts to other cars on the road. Drivers of Smart cars — and any small vehicle, including the Mini Cooper and the Miata — are tasked with a greater level of defensive driving. Think of the awareness you would exhibit while driving a small sports car next to an 18-wheeler. Still, Smart offers safety features many cars twice its size lack.Many critics of Smart point out its small size must mean lower crash ratings. Although it has not yet been officially tested, Smart president Dave Schembri said, “The car has been designed to receive a four-star crash rating” in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration front- and side-impact tests.Smart is built around a Tridion safety cell, a rigid steel frame that absorbs much of the impact in a collision. The cell also transfers some of the energy created by impact to crumple zones of the other car in the crash. The engine, located in the back of the vehicle, is designed to slide under the passenger compartment and not towards passengers in the event of a rear hit. There are crash absorbing structural elements in the front and back of the vehicle that act as crumple zones in high-impact collision. Aluminum struts in the doors and front and side airbags create a car much safer than it initially appears.Urban driving convenience
Smart is about half the size of a Honda Accord. At 8.8 feet long, the fortwo can fit headlong into a parking spot in which even a compact car would only fit length-wise. This means two Smarts can fit into a spot that would only fit one larger vehicle. Some European cities have even created Smart-only parking out of previously unused inches of street space.Another convenience seems to be Smart’s maneuverability. “If you’re driving in low-speed urban situations, a small car might be a better alternative,” said Russ Raider, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.Price
Urban women looking for a deal on a get-around-town car will be pleased with Smart’s price tag. Starting at $11,000 and maxing out at $15,000, the car is a great option for women who have huge city rents to worry about. The car’s fuel efficiency ups the cost savings even more.”When people commute they’re often alone, so why would they want to take on the cost of a four-seater vehicle?” asks Roger Penske. “The Smart will achieve over 40 mpg at a time when fuel costs are higher than I can ever remember. This is a metro car for a high-density market.”What about Smart’s closest competitor, the Mini? Penske doesn’t consider it competition at all. “A typical Mini will be $6,000-$7,000 more expensive,” he said, “and the ownership costs are higher.”But is it cute?
Okay, we’re girls. Safety, mileage, blah, blah, blah. Is it cute? Totally. Crowds flocked to the car at the Detroit Auto Show — we had a hard time taking pictures without someone unwittingly stepping into the frame! The Smart is certainly eye-catching, if only because it is so different than what we’re used to seeing on the road. A convertible model will be available, and other models have a tinted, translucent hard plastic roof. The car features changeable body panels, allowing the owner to easily transform the vehicle to an entirely different color in less than an hour-and-a-half.Smart is built with the urban driver in mind. Nearly 800,000 have been sold in 36 countries around the world. It might not be the car for a Montana rancher or a Peoria soccer mom, but it is a great option for the creative urban woman-on-the-go who is concerned with both form and function. And it’s cute!