The Smart Car Comes to Canada

I posted this article originally on March 29/2005 on my old site

May 5, 2004

MSN Canada had this article about the smart car:

If Less is More, can Smaller be Smarter?

by Jim Kenzie

smart car

Mercedes-Benz made the biggest splash at the 2004 CIAS by announcing that it would offer the ‘smart fortwo’ coupe and cabriolet as 2005 models in Canada, starting this coming fall. Photo: Jim Kenzie

It’s safe to assume that the Coalition of the Willing wouldn’t be in Iraq if that country grew Brussels sprouts. So, what if we reduced our crude oil consumption by the amount of oil we currently get from Iraq. Here’s the 2005 smart fortwo, a car that might help us do it.

Overall rating: 8.0 / 10

Pros

– Amazing fuel consumption
– Doubles your city’s parking capacity overnight
– Cute as a spotted pup

Cons

– It REALLY is small!
– Not very versatile
– Sensitive to sidewinds

smart car inside

In reviewer Kenzie’s eyes, the interior décor is “funkiness personified”, with this tachometer and clock on swivel pods that “look like alien eyeballs”.

Small Wonder

You could handbrake-turn a Ferrari Enzo onto the red carpet at the Oscars presentation ceremony in Hollywood and not generate more excitement than if you showed up in a Smart * car.

It’s just so damn cute.

But the tiny little Smart might also be a big part of the solution to our urban transportation problems. The average body count in a car in a modern North American rush hour is 1.4 people. The Smart seats two. It uses just 3.5 litres of diesel fuel per 100 kilometres – that’s 80 miles per Imperial gallon.

Hello? Are we making a connection here?

smart car back

TThe cabriolet model’s roof has power sunroof mode and can then be flipped back completely by hand. The plastic rear window has no defroster, though, and will likely prove scratch-prone. Photo: Jim Kenzie

From Idea to Project

The Smart was the second big idea of Nicholas Hayek.

His first was the Swatch watch company, which brought stylish and cheap fashion watches to the masses, thereby rejuvenating the entire Swiss timepiece industry.

Then he thought: Why can’t I do the same thing for the car industry? Why not build a small, chic, functional city car, and sell it at the right price?

Oh yes, and make another fortune?

One small problem – he was a watchmaker, and didn’t know anything about the car business.

He needed a partner.

After abortive attempts to enlist Renault and Volkswagen into his venture, he pitched the idea to Daimler-Benz.

Turns out a particularly far-sighted Benz engineer named Johann Tomforde had been working on just such a concept for years; it was a good fit.

A joint venture was created in 1994; Hayek had 49 per cent, Daimler-Benz 51 per cent.

It was to be called the Micro Car Company – MCC.

But “smart” was adopted as the brand name – that’s “S” as in “Swatch”, “M” as in “Mercedes”, and “art” – well, for its own sake.

The double entendre (intelligent, chic) didn’t hurt.

The end result was largely Tomforde’s design. The car looked like nothing more than a motorized wheelchair with a roof.

Tiny at just 2.5 metres long, you could park it perpendicular to the sidewalk. That’s illegal in most jurisdictions, but smarties do it anyway, just because they can.

A factory was built in Hambach, France. Canadian parts conglomerate Magna and several other major suppliers co-located right in the building, to contribute their components to the final product.

smart car inside 2

The Smart doesn’t feel small inside. The is plenty of head- and legroom, a bit less width. The comfortable seats let you sit higher than in a conventional car: The right front folds flat forward for some additional cargo capacity. Photo: Jim Kenzie

Today Europe: Tomorrow…

By this time, Mercedes had bought Hayek out. The car had evolved away from his concept of a simple machine into something quite sophisticated: More expensive than Hayek had originally envisioned too, even if it was still cheap by European new-car standards.

And there was still that ego issue…

Mercedes had built a car – now it had to build a brand.

Dealers were required to invest huge amounts of money in stand-alone retail outlets that looked – for all the world – like big PEZ dispensers. I don’t know what you’d do if the one on top was yellow and you wanted a blue one…

Still, initially they couldn’t toss Smart cars off buildings onto unsuspecting customers.

It appeared just too small, even for European city use. And surely it couldn’t be safe, being that small, even if it passed all crash tests.

smart car dealers

The first ‘smart’ brand dealers in Europe made big investments in outlets such as this one that featured glassed display towers which looked everything like gigantic PEZ candy dispensers.

A Canadian Beachhead

The marketing plan for the “smart fortwo” coupe and cabriolet was unveiled at Toronto’s Canadian International Auto Show this past February. The final approvals from Transport Canada and the business decision to make it happen were made literally minutes before the opening of the show.

A display stand was cobbled up on the eve of press day, and four Smart cars graced the Mercedes booth. If you were there, you know it was by far the most popular display in the entire show.

Real Car for Real World

smart car frame

The Smart’s safety cell is built by Magna. With precious little crush space up front, the crash forces are transmitted into the centre structure. It works, according to standard European crash test simulations.

So, what’s it like to drive?

Huge fun, as it turns out.

Everyone’s reaction is always the same – can you actually DRIVE something this small on public roads?

You bet.

Once you get in the car, the “smallness” sensation largely disappears. There’s loads of head- and legroom; the only dimension that seems snug at all is width.

The lovely comfortable seats are well up off the floor – you sit higher than in a conventional car. Maybe not as high as in most SUVs, but instead of staring right at the hubcaps of those transport trucks in the lane beside you, like, for example, in a Mazda Miata, you’re more at top-of-fender height – not nearly as intimidating as you might think.

At least, not until you drive past a glass-walled building or a shiny black van and check yourself out in the reflection.

My God, this IS small…

smart car color

If you are tired of your Smart’s colour, or if the plastic body panels are damaged, they can easily be replaced. You can get different shades and probably install them yourself.

Micro Turbo Diesel Power

Canadian Smarts will be powered, if that’s not too strong a word, by a tiny, transversely-mounted-in-the-rear 799 cc three-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine, generating 40.2 horsepower (at these levels, you claim every fraction you can…) at 4200 rpm, and a surprisingly stout 73.8 lb/ft of torque between 1800 and 2800 rpm.

My test car had the base “Softip” six-speed transmission. It’s a genuine manual gearbox, except clutch activation is automatic.

You tap the floor-mounted shift lever forward to upshift, and back to downshift. No need to play with the throttle – the system takes care of all that for you.

And trust me – it’ll shift more smoothly than you can… It’s not lightning fast, but neither is the car.

Too lazy to upshift? Then let the engine rev up to its red line – just 4500 rpm – and it’ll upshift by itself. If you slow down nearly to a crawl, the transmission will automatically downshift, ending up in first if you come to a halt.

About the only time it gets confused is if you want to downshift two or three gears quickly in order to take advantage of a small gap in the traffic pattern. You can tap down a couple of times, but it doesn’t always react as fast as you might like.

smart car cabrio

After a slow start, Smart cars are now very popular in Europe, where they are the epitome of chic for young urbanites in Paris, Berlin, Rome or Milan.

The Performance you Need, Just

The acceleration numbers can only be described as glacial, with a claimed 0-100 km/h acceleration time of 19.8 seconds.

But the car doesn’t feel that slow.

First gear is quite low, so you get a decent launch. Run up to about 4200 rpm, shift to second; 4200 rpm again, into third – and you’re already at 50 km/h, the speed limit in most urban areas.

I never felt undergunned driving the Smart in traffic.

Now, should you feel the need to dig down deeper for more power – well, there isn’t any. Passing on two-lane roads needs the driving equivalent of a Royal Commission.

But as long as you’re only interested in keeping up and not drag-racing everybody you line up against at a traffic light, the Smart is fine, just fine.

Fourth works for most “arterial” roads, in the 60 km/h range. Fifth is not much use under 80 km/h – that’s about 2000 rpm, and the engine lugs below that speed.

smart car winter

Smart cars have been tested for winter driving, as this development session photo shows. Jim Kenzie has driven a Smart in December and confirms it.

The Driving Experience

OK, so it is sensitive to crosswinds, but you soon get used to that.

The engine has the “sound of fuel economy” rattle typical of a diesel. But because it’s located behind the passenger cabin, you barely hear it once it’s warmed up.

The fuel consumption is crazy-good: The combined rating is 3.5 litres per 100 kilometres, or 80 miles per gallon.

But the fuel tank is also crazy-small – just 22 litres, with 5 litres reserve. If you get max economy (like most cars, the Transport Canada numbers cannot usually be replicated in the real world) that will only take you 628 km.

In reality, you’ll probably be filling up every 300-400 kilometres.

Still, in typical commute-mode, that might be every two or three days.

And I was never able to get more than twelve bucks worth of fuel into the car on any fill-up. You could get used to that.

The ultra-short wheelbase means the ride is going to be a bit choppy, but I didn’t find it at all uncomfortable. The handling was deliberately dumbed down

smart car canada

This maple leaf-festooned Smart fortwo coupe was the surprise and undisputed star of the 2004 Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto last February. Photo: Bruce Whitaker

All-Season Safety

Worried about how the Smart will perform in winter? I also drove one a couple of years ago in December. With the engine over the driven wheels, it gets all sorts of traction. The tires – on 15-inch diameter wheels – also can dig through deep snow.

The short wheelbase does mean than any skid might quickly turn into a spin. That’s where the standard directional stability control system with integrated traction control, plus the ABS brakes, may have to bail you out.

If all else fails, you’ve got seat belts with pre-tensioners and force limiters, dual air bags, and the Magna-built “Tridion” safety cell, including the basket-handle roll cage structure. There is almost no crush space up front – that’s what most cars use to absorb the impact of a frontal crash. In the Smart, the energy is transmitted right into the centre structure of the car, and through the unique seats and back into the engine compartment.

I don’t know how it does it, but in European crash tests, Smart actually outscores much larger cars in the sub-compact field.

My test car was the cabriolet model. The roof is a three-way deal. A button on the shift console activates the sunroof component – it folds back to expose you to the sun’s glory. As a percentage of total roof area, this must be the industry’s biggest sunroof.

Further pressing on the release button unhooks the folded roof from the roll bar. The entire gubbins can then be folded down manually onto the rear scuttle.

Year-Round Chic

The interior décor is funkiness personified. The dash vents, tachometer and clock are on swivel pods that look like alien eyeballs.

The cup holder is a thing of beauty, with a rubber insert pivoting out to accommodate beverages of varying sizes and capacities.

The right front seat folds flat forward to provide some luggage capacity inside the cabin. But to do so you must release catches on both sides on the seat, then pull the seat back down. Count your hands; you’ll be one short…

The back has a holder and storage bin moulded into it, but they’re so shallow and the surface so slippery that it’s not as useful as it might be.

A skinny briefcase can fit behind the seats, and the door map pockets are usefully large.

Another tiny detail in Smart deserves mention. Just like Mercedes’ bigger cars, Smart features a one-touch lane-change turn signal. Just touch the lever up or down, and you get three flashes, right or left respectively. It feels like a gimmick at first, but days after taking the Smart back to Mercedes-Benz Canada I was still trying to do this on other cars. Like remote keyless entry, it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem like a big deal when you first hear about it, but soon seems so right.

Diesel-type engines don’t generate as much heat as gasoline engines do; heater performance can be a problem in cold weather. The Smart people even figured this out: An auxiliary heater automatically comes into play whenever the temperature lever is slid all the way to full-hot.

How Much Then? Get this …

So, how smart is the Smart?

A 730 kg car, 2.5 metres long, that uses only 3.5 litres per 100 km and passes every crash test?

With ABS, directional stability control, and brake assist, in addition to power locks and windows, and an engine immobiliser?

How about $16,000 for the coupe, and under $20,000 for the cabriolet?

That’s not just smart – that’s genius.

I won’t argue that it’s the most versatile vehicle you can buy. Neither is a Mazda Miata (for whose price you could buy two Smarts) or a Ferrari 575 Maranello (for whose price you might be able to buy controlling interest in the Smart company).

It is what it is…

A friend figures he could buy a Smart, and it’d pay for itself within three years or so, with the money he saves just driving to the commuter train, compared to his current Subaru Outback.

Now, Smart’s maybe real-world fuel economy won’t be that much better than you’d get in a Volkswagen Jetta TDi, which is a much bigger, more versatile machine.

But nobody’s going to go Ooh and Ahh when you pull up in a Jetta…

* Editor’s note: The brand’s official name is “smart”, all lower case, but for the sake of legibility, we have kept the author’s spelling for his review, i.e.: Smart.

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