24
Jan
08

Very Smart

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Early in December, I had a Smart fortwo delivered to my house for a test drive. I sat at my desk half on the computer and half staring out the window, eagerly awaiting its arrival like an infant waits for dad to come home. And eventually, what looked like a blue Christmas ornament trundled down southdown road and into my driveway.

Now I consider myself well travelled; I know that products develop differently as cultures dictate. It’s well known that I believe cars evolve as distinctly as Darwin’s finches. having said that, this car was freakin’ weird.

Tiny. it’s the best word for it and it still doesn’t do it justice. I can show you pictures and give you measurements ( 6ft wide, 8 ft long) but that still won’t give you the proper sense of its diminutiveness. What immediately came to mind was the hysteria that followed the Mini Cooper when they were revamped and released in the states. Everyone was stunned by the minuscule British icon, both by how relatively small it was compared to our American standards, and how quirky it was. Many said it would fail and be a fad, but it persevered and they’re everywhere you look now, like a plant that wasn’t checked at the border and spread automotive kudzu across the landscape.

The driver who dropped it off sat me down inside and gave me a quick talk-thru about it. He said that this was one of the European models, and it showed. The speedometer was measured out in kph and the aircon was in Celsius, plus the transmission had no parking gear, a distinct American mainstay. Still, I was skeptical. To me, it made more sense that this car came from Canada, since the metrics and such would still be the same, and they could easily tout it as “European.” The clock was exactly 7 hours ahead, however, which convinced me a bit, silly as that sounds.

The interior was disorientingly spacious. I’ve seen cockpits on jets smaller than this. Hell, I’ve seen huge cars with significantly more cramped interiors (*cough*hummer *cough*). There was the dash cluster which contained the speedometer and an LCD display that showed you the current gear, the time, fuel economy, and temperature (both engine and outside). The tachometer and a second analog clock sat in the middle of the dash like kermit’s eyeballs. Under them lay the center console which housed a pretty decent aircon and a basic cd/radio, as well as buttons for your hazard lights and seat warmers. All in all, nothing mind blowing, but pretty well equipped.

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Between the seats rest the sequential transmission, where the foreign-ness continued. first of all, as if this car needed any more reason to be compared to a golf cart, thats where the ignition was. The gear shift mapped out was thus: upshift, neutral, downshift, reverse. Confusing at first and you won’t see it on the U.S. models (you’ll get the standard PRND layout, with the “+-” option for sequential manual shifting) but it took some getting used to. a button on the shifter itself, like where you would find on some cars an overdrive, toggled from the sequential manual to full automatic. naturally, to park, you had to place it in neutral and engage the handbrake.

To explain a bit, the sequential shift found on a few cars nowadays is usually there to give the driver a bit more input than usual on an automatic. While you can very well leave it in “D” and drive with content, this allows the driver to feel a bit sportier and in control without dealing with a clutch and actually choosing the gears. like an arcade racer, you just push the stick towards the “+” to shift up, and the “-” to shift down. It’s not entirely useful, to be perfectly honest, but it’s fun and you get to squeeze out a modicum of extra performance if you know what you are doing. Anyway, on the Smart it was entirely required because if you had left the transmission to it’s own devices, you would have suffered unimaginable whiplash on your first journey.

Put the pedal down from a standstill, it’s wee 3 cylinder 1 liter engine launches you off in an expected and quite quick manner. Then at a desired rpm, it disengages 1st gear, swaps in 2nd, and re-engages in about as much time as it took to read this sentence twice. That’s not good. this results in you being pushed back at launch, then LURCHED forward while it meanders about looking for the next gear, then throws you back when it finds it. So you have to use the sequential shift just to rev it beyond the automatic’s preferred limit to offset this, or at the very least allow you to anticipate the jerkiness by initiating it when you choose.

Rounding out the technical stuff is the steering was heavy since this particular one didn’t have power steering, and the brake is oddly hinged from the floor, and thats basically it. now….

I absolutely adored this car. because it’s so small, you immediately want to know all the wierd places you can fit it. you pull into a parking lot, and you parallel into a normal spot. Approach a curb, and you abandon paralleling altogether and just park nose-in. I was at a light and I cought myself inching closer and closer to a construction-bound flatbed to see if I could fit under the tailgate. (almost.)

Driving it to work on northern boulevard, I was terrified by the surrounding monstrosities while being gawked at by everyone. The reaction from people was very “smurf-meets-Ferrari,” a distinct look of oddity with a knowing admiration. Guys will admire your Mustang, but girls will get downright flirty when you stand next to the smart.

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Speaking of the Mustang, there was the inevitable comparison. For a mix of fun Victor and I took both down to the Nassau museum of art (home of our own Vanderbilt Cup, which you may have read about) to shoot a little film for one of V’s school projects. This consisted of duct taping a camera to the Smart’s tailgate while I drove Bucephalus (yes, my car has a name) behind him along the grounds of the museum. When we finished, V and I lined up the cars to compare the two.

It was a unique moment to see these two together in the fading light amidst the light snow that had just begun to fall. It was a black wolf which had befrended a bunny. while we sat and marvelled at the physical differences and debated the finer points, we did the inevitable: we dragged.

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as light hearted and one sided as it was, there was still that tension at the line. We counted it off and dropped the hammer, and both cars took off down the parking lot of the museum. I admit that I held back a bit, not wanting to trounce the clutch for a cheeky bit of play time, but even so, the smart did surprisingly well off the line. we get to the end of the lot and circled around for a while, then headed home. That was fun as well because I felt very big-brotherly as I shooed away tailgaters and overtakers from the smart with my car.

By the end of the week, I had just about enough of the smart, as fun as it was, and defaulted back to my Mustang while Victor became the primary occupant of the Smart. In all honesty, it’s really more his thing. He likes the quirky and, dare I say, cute stuff. He loved the thing. Cherished it, like his most precious pokemon. They bonded where as I was sort of babysitting and analyzing.

In fact, it just occured to me that he’s looking to get a car. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

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-Alex-

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