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Up close with the smart

Thursday, 13 March, 2008

Tuesday, 19 February 2008, I finally found myself face to face with the smart™. I have held a long fascination with this iconic conveyance because it is the antithesis of everything both automotive and American.

The fundamental idea is a return to essential motoring. In the spirit of the Austin/Morris 850, Citroën 2CV, Cony 360, DAF 600, Fiat Topolino, Goggomobil, Renault 4CV, Volkswagen Type 1 and similarly simple cars, the smart™ is an attempt to provide the essential elements of an automobile utilizing fully modern technology.

Another, but distinctively different, interpretation of this principle is the Renault-Dacia Logan. Unlike the smart™, Logan was licensed to other automakers even before Renault’s Romanian subsidiary put it into production. As of 2008 the Logan is available in five body styles, a sedan, estate or station wagon, a van or sedan delivery version of the estate, hatchback and utility or pickup. I digress.

During 1991 Swatch, the Swiss watchmaker credited with saving that industry, created a joint venture with Volkswagen called Micro Compact Car AG for the purpose of developing a fully modern, hybrid-electric city car. The original design intended to utilize Swatch style and cleverness to reach a youth market and “space for two people and two cases of beer”. Market research provided that younger drivers wanted a proper four-passenger vehicle, and the capacitor-based electricity-storage system proposed by Swatch would force the cars to sell in excess of €50,000.

In 1994 Daimler, then planning the Mercedes A-class, was interested in the proposed platform with the possibility of creating a new class below the A. Daimler purchased VW’s portion of MCC and after seeing the existing plans, transferred the project to the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Center of North America in Irvine, California. This location was selected with the intent of being far away from the influence of Swatch. Around this time the project acquired the trade name Smart, an awkward acronym for Swatch-Mercedes Art.

The “Smart City Coupé” prototype premiered at the inauspicious Atlanta Auto Show in 1996. The prototype shown was essentially similar to the production vehicle which would appear in two years, although without doors. The focal point of this vehicle was something called the Tridion which acted as chassis, roll cage and provided the majority of the body structure. It was a unique, wholly new interpretation of automotive design. The 1996 Smart City Coupé was the most significant advance in automotive chassis design since the wide adoption of monocoque, or unit-body construction following World War II.

By the time the smart, now in all lower case, hit European streets in the Spring 1998, Swatch had divested all interests and Micro Compact Car AG was dissolved. The smart was produced by a division of DaimlerChrysler AG. The people who know about these things anticipated sales of 200,000 units per year on four continents.

The decision to design the vehicle in California and the world premier in Atlanta lead many observers to believe the car would be available in the United States in short order. This did not happen. Amid persistent rumors the “Chrysler Division” was being sold, the unanticipated announcement came in May 2006 that national automobile retailer Penske Automotive Group would act as an independent importer for the redesigned (451) vehicle to be introduced in early 2008.

BMW designed their MINI specifically to be the smallest vehicle allowable on American roads. Their American division had questions about this, and lobbying pursued an alteration in NHTSA standards for the purpose of measuring performance rather than physical size of specific components. These efforts were successful, and the 2001 MINI became the smallest automobile available in North America since the Toyota Starlet left the market during 1984. These altered standards opened a door for the smart to come to the United States.

This Australian spot from 2005 features the fortwo, roadster, a low slung body on the fortwo platform, and forfour, a considerably redecorated Mitsubishi Colt. The latter vehicles are no longer in production. The U.S. rollout of the smart has not yet utilized any traditional national advertising.

After ten model years, smart has yet to produce its millionth vehicle. It is strange. It is too small, even for Europe. It is not as efficient as its competition, especially with the diesel-powered competition, and the Tridion is only hype. These are the rumors which have dogged the vehicle now called the fortwo (as in “for two passengers”) through it’s entire production. The transaxle operation is very strange as well. Nonetheless, smart is beloved by the relatively few consumers who have elected to purchase one. While priced like a larger Japanese or Korean minisubcompact, the cleverness of its design, safety and excellent driving characteristics win the hearts and Euros of motorists away from the likes of the Hyundai Getz, Honda Jazz and Toyota Aygo. On the theory that Americans will not purchase new small cars and would rather purchase a larger car second hand, only one of smart’s competitors is available in the U.S.

During 2007 Penske sponsored “The Street smart Road Show”, a traveling event during which consumers could see, drive and learn about the existing (450) version of the fortwo. A system of reservations and a national network of dealers were established during the Road Show period. The $99 reservation system is the most successful automotive advance ordering campaign ever in the United States. On the proposed end date of the pre-order period, 30 November 2007, over 30 thousand cars were ordered.

The first-year production for America anticipated 25 thousand vehicles. The ordering system remains in place and as of February 2008, the first full month of sales, 1800 vehicles have been delivered but 40 thousand orders are in the system. Most individual dealers are not expected to have test vehicles or inventory until the 2010 model year (October 2009), even after the announcement of increased production of U.S.-bound vehicles. These numbers are not particularly impressive, but considering the American model of automobile sales is based on vehicles being purchased out of dealer inventory, and most smart orders are placed on vehicles unseen by the purchaser and built to order, the smart is an amazing success in its first weeks.

Hyundai remains the import automaker selling the most vehicles in their first model year in the U.S. In 1985 Hyundai sold 85,000 Excels, just under 7100 units per month. smart is unlikely to produce 85K for the U.S. this year.

Most “smart centers”, the moniker for the dealerships, are located in or very near urban centers. Most are within clusters of dealers of other makes, and run by companies for which the addition of the new brand is a minor commitment. Almost all of these dealers have exactly one vehicle for display in the showroom with the remainder of the showroom being dedicated to the display of smart-themed merchandise.

Although it is located in a shopping center in a distant suburb, my regional smart center, in the bedroom community of Round Rock, Texas is not otherwise an exception. I was festering in the house one recent day and set out for what we used to call “the great white north”, to see after all these years, the U.S.-specification smart fortwo.

To be clear, the vehicle available is a total redesign, internally coded 451 as opposed to the original 450, and a rededication to the one-model policy upon which Ford and Volkswagen built their empires. The new design is specifically intended for the States, even though this one model is available in every market in which smart operates with minor regional modification.

It is somewhat unusual to walk into an auto dealer housed in the same building as a Dollar General store, multiplex theater and fingernail parlor. The interior design is not unlike that of an Apple Store, all white with hints of light wood. Facing as you enter is the “smart boutique”, a display of shirts, bags, key fobs and other smart-logo-encrusted paraphernalia. Since my visit, I discovered one may inquire with the receptionist and she can get which ever products you desire from the stocks. To the right is a cluster of low upholstered chairs with a coffee table, and the object of the exercise.

Both in its natural environment of city traffic and on the showroom floor, the smart™ fortwo™ 451 really does look like half of a car. By contemporary standards, it is half of a car, vitally it is the half most frequently used. The top selling passenger car both sold and built in the United States is the Toyota Camry (or 冠) with a wheelbase of 109.3 inches (2776 mm), overall length of 189.2 inches (4805 mm), and a curb weight of 3483 lb (1580 kg). The wheelbase for the smart is 73.5 inches (1870 mm or 67%) with an overall length of 106.1 inches (2690 mm or 56%) and curb weight of 1,600 lb (730 kg or 42%). This actually works out to an average of 55% of a car or something.

The vehicle itself is only remarkable by its size and relative lack of awkward design elements. A simple “Puffin” is on the front. The first thing I noticed about the 451 was the dramatic difference between the apparently clear-coated finish of the Tridion and the plastic panels. The wheels and tires are fashionably low-profile, and the window sticker has to be placed on the windshield for lack of immobile side windows. This smart is in Passion trim and “bumblebee” configuration, that is, yellow panels on a black Tridion. The interior is medium gray, as are all North American smarts this year. The smart is particularly tall, just a few inches less so than my Ford Ranger.

I spoke with a fellow who appeared as though he had just stepped off the service floor. He confessed a fondness for tiny cars, and that he misses the Honda 600 he drove in the seventies. He stood at least six feet, five inches and easily three hundred pounds; mostly rock. Although an employee of the franchiser, he stated that he was still waiting for his own fortwo Passion coming with white panels and a silver tridion. A special point was made that he fits into the car easily.

I do not doubt it. The last person to try out this smart was appreciably taller than myself. All the interior controls fell readily to hand and, excepting the inboard-mounted seat adjustment levers, in their intuitive place. Well, aside from my personal preference for a dashboard-mounted light switch. I had to move the seat forward at least eight inches or about 16% of the entire wheelbase in order to reach everything.

The seats are surprisingly supportive. You are confronted with a half-circle speedometer, and apparently no other gauges. When the vehicle is running, an electrophoretic or liquid-crystal display (depending upon who you believe) activates with all the vital information a motorhead like your humble narrator craves. It is smaller than I was lead to believe. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Suzuki Cultus/Chevrolet Sprint/Geo Metro/Pontiac Firefly, but the feeling of the space inside is quite similar. To the right is the range selector, with the ignition switch behind and the hand brake. It is uncannily car-like. The doors close with a nice, satisfying thunk.

The overall fit and finish of the interior isn’t very impressive if you think of the car as a Mercedes. When you compare the fortwo to other vehicles in its price class, Yaris, Accent, Rio, Aveo, it becomes somewhat impressive. Everything is simple and intellegently laid out; as though the designers at Ikea put it together.

When you get out, you are at the back of the car before you know it. Instead of a traditional hatchback, you find that the rear window is hinged at the top of the car, while the rest of the back is a tailgate. This configuration is familiar to anyone with a pickup truck and a cap over the bed. Each door may open independently. This is another feature apparently intended to be used in tight urban spaces. You peel up the carpet in the back and are presented with a hatch. Under the hatch, like a VW Type 3, is the engine. This is a 999 cc, three-cylinder unit built by Mitsubishi under license from Hyundai. It is attached to the “automated manual” transmission, which surely is properly called a transaxle, but no one does.

This gets to the heart of the cleverness of this vehicle. Daimler specifies synthetic oil and all manner of high-tech bits on the car for the purpose of a 15 thousand mile service interval. That is, for the smart’s intended use, an annual servicing. During the service, the entire engine-transmission assembly is removed from the car, systematically inspected, all fluids and filters replaced, then reinstalled into the car. During the annual service all wear items are inspected and replaced if required. The annual service is supposedly expensive, so much so that numbers are hard to come by. In the smart-focused forums you occasionally discover people complaining about the $400 oil change. I presume this refers to the annual service.

You may ask: What on earth is an automated manual transmission? The space constraints of the smart are such that it has room for neither a clutch assembly nor an automatic transmission or CVT. The solution was the automated manual. The clutch action is controlled electronically and the driver has no pedal. The transmission shifts either in its own, or when prompted by the driver by upshifting (lever forward) or down shifting (lever back) at any speed. In “manual mode” the engine will upshift on its own at about 5400 rpm. This unusual mechanism draws more than a little ire from the automotive press.

Experienced fortwo drivers know to release the throttle before shifting, as one would with a traditional manual transmission. Even in automatic mode, an imminent shift is eased with less throttle, although this takes considerable practice. This unusual setup allows Daimler to use a single system for every car on every continent.

The engine cover and the plastic exoskeleton are unexpectedly flimsy. I presume the engine cover can be flimsy as it will see very little use. The exterior panels, however, are something of a surprise. One pulls a couple of latches to move the front panel away to check the brake fluid and windshield washer reservoirs. It comes away quite easily, too easily, and is attached to the rest of the body by a couple of uninspiring nylon straps. This panel doesn’t weigh a pound and is made of a material not unlike Tupperware. It is flexible not unlike Tupperware as well. I want to say something about how clever and light the body panels are, but this extreme lightness does not inspire confidence.

With the seats adjusted to suit me the infamously tiny rear cargo area becomes positively spacious. It is certainly not comparable to a Volvo 245, but much larger than I anticipated. Twenty inches high, around forty inches wide and thirty deep. Taller drivers will find this space more limited, but it is certainly sufficient for four paper bags of groceries.

I did not take the car for a test drive. My local smart center does not yet have a tester available. Their only unsold vehicle is on the showroom floor. The cars are landing in Baltimore sold. Twelve fit on a standard forty-two foot double-deck car carrier, and are delivered twelve at a time. This is expected to continue for some time, as the entire anticipated run of 2008 models are already sold. In fact, my smart center does not anticipate having an inventory of unsold cars until the beginning of the 2010 model year. If then.

Presuming I am seeing over and over a certain blue on silver smart, I have seen exactly three 451s with Texas plates since the commencement of sales in January. Of course, I don’t get out of the house much anymore.

Would I buy one? My apprehensions are Daimler’s dedication to the make on this continent, the fact that these cars are unproven in the distinct environment of the United States and the unpardonable two-year warranty. When Hyundai started getting their act together they communicated their new confidence in their vehicles with a shocking 10-year warranty. smart pushes their connection to Mercedes, which isn’t as encouraging among my fellow motorheads, while providing a confidence eliminating 24 month or 24000 mile back-up plan. Their Canadian counterparts are backed up for 48 months or 80000 kilometers (49710 miles). Until the cars are either widely renowned for Hondaesque quality, or backed up by the manufacturer properly, I won’t find myself driving one. Otherwise, it is everything I am looking for in a car. Well, I’d like a proper clutch but I don’t imagine one could do anything about that.

And cruise control. Add cruise control, Penske, please. I cannot believe you didn’t make provision for this. Commuters interested in fuel economy and avoiding speed traps and traffic cameras want cruise control. Especially if you will not authorize the one aftermaket cruise system, and this should really be in consideration, the fortwo and its most likely market, commuters obsessively interested in fuel economy, will pay handsomely for cruise control.

  1. Wednesday, 26 March, 2008 15:18

    Interesting post!, man


  2. Saturday, 26 April, 2008 9:27

    Hey Stan,

    I accidentally found one of their promotional events last summer. I never got it up over 20mph but it felt very car like from the cockpit.

    It is Lewis, from Louisville. Haven’t heard from you since I moved to Memphis.(13 years?) I may be visiting Austin in May. Get in touch with me at fciron at gmail


  3. Thursday, 19 June, 2008 7:47

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Superposition!


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