Here's my problem with today's American cars: they have no sense of humor. They're so smug and serious, so full of gravitas, and so damn big. And with only a few exceptions, they all look alike. Back in the old days, a man's automobile was an extension of his personality, whether he was a yuppie or a greaser, a hippie or a jock. Now every car seems to be an extension of John Ashcroft—stern, stoic, and just no fun.
Which brings me to the Smart car, a diminutive two-seater manufactured by Daimler-Chrysler and sold throughout Europe and Japan. Debuting in 1998 as a roofed alternative to the moped, it was designed to appeal to urban drivers, or anyone willing to sacrifice vanity for better mileage, low emissions, and the ability to park inside a phone booth. Even compared to other eco-friendly cars, the Smart was beyond tiny: just eight feet long, five feet shorter than a VW Beetle. It looked like a doorstop. Most dismissed it as a joke, and hardly anybody bought one.
Well, give anything silly-looking enough time and eventually it will seem kind of cool. Designers have created newer models with a bolder appearance, more bells and whistles, and improved safety features. The brand has since won over some 430,000 drivers, and the line now includes a nifty convertible (the Cabrio) and a sleek sports car (the Roadster, due out in Europe this spring). If you're not one of those drivers who equate the size of their vehicle with that of other appendages—and if you have a sense of humor—the Smart just may be for you. Indeed, Daimler-Chrysler eventually hopes to introduce the brand to America, most likely in cities with limited parking. Meanwhile, Avis, National, and other companies are renting Smarts to tourists in Europe, not only for city driving but for jaunts around the countryside.
Hold on—the countryside?Sure, the Smart is ideal for, say, truffle shopping in the Marais. But can a three-cylinder Barcalounger realistically carry a couple on a road trip around the Côte d'Azur?Can it handle those breakneck French superhighways?The twisting mountain passes of the Grande Corniche?Can it compete in the swanky enclaves of Monaco—or perhaps more important, can its tiny trunk hold four days' worth of luggage?On a recent trip to the Riviera, my girlfriend and I took the challenge.
We packed light, only one rollaway and a backpack. Of course, minimizing luggage is one thing; shrinking body parts is another. I'm six foot one, and accustomed to static-cling hairdos from rubbing my head on car roofs. When the rental agent in Nice showed us our little Cabrio, my neck tensed in panic. But the interior was more spacious than it looked, with a good five inches of headroom. Indeed, throughout the trip, we often forgot we were in a tiny car until we climbed out.
Our Cabrio Passion convertible was reddish-orange ("Phat Red," the company calls it) with silver trim. "Outside, it's all plastic panels," said the agent, "so the exterior can be replaced in no time." This did not sound encouraging: a plastic-sided car?The agent quickly assuaged our fears. "Not to worry, this is one of the safest cars you can ride in." Why?Smart's acclaimed "Tridion safety cell" surrounds passengers in a sturdy cage of steel that has passed crash tests with flying colors.