The Smart Car is Here, But is it Smart Enough?

The Smart Car is Here, But is it Smart Enough?
© David Burton 2008

Smart car Photo

Two years ago, I wrote about a very compact 2-seat vehicle manufactured by Daimler-Benz which was called the SmartCar (Ref. 1). At that time, I wrote that “Smart is short for Swatch Mercedes ART. Mercedes Benz initially launched the Smart car in Europe in 1998. After meeting all environmental and safety requirements, the Smart car was introduced into the United States in 1999. Initially, the Smart car was called the smart Micro Compact Car City Coupe.”

The Smart is small - just over 8’ in length, making it very easy to park and two of them can fit in the space occupied by some of the largest SUV’s. It is relatively light weight -1600 lb, which significantly contributes to its good fuel economy. According to local auto dealer, Herb Chambers, who is selling the Smart car (Ref. 2), the Smart’s small size allow it to park “any place”. Also, “Its big windows give great visibility. It’s very peppy and responsive and feels solid. The … trunk is accessible from both inside and outside.”

Currently, the Smart is selling for $12,000 to $17,000 and there is reported to be a waiting list. For its size and carrying capacity, that may not be considered inexpensive. “The Smart is relatively safe. Mercedes developed the original version with the goal of making it as safe as their E-class. Bookended by crumple zones, a steel roll cage surrounds the occupants. Not only does that cage resist deformation in even the most severe impacts, in a crash it will actually activate the crumple zones on larger cars, using their in-built protection to cushion the Smart's occupants, too. It also comes with the full retinue of airbags.” (Ref. 3)

The Smart gives its two passengers plenty of room. “I'm 6'2" and I couldn't reach the steering wheel with the driver's seat all the way back. Compared to the front cabin of big SUVs, the Smart is positively spacious, thanks to its airy design and upright seats.” (Ref. 3)

In terms of fuel economy, the Smart is not all that Green. The problem is that “the 1-liter, 70 bhp engine has to work hard, so it only averages about 38mpg - less if you drive fast.” (Ref. 3) In another review of the Smart, it was stated that “Smart forecasts a rating of 33 mpg in town, 40 on the highway, 36 in combined driving. (A) Test car recorded 40 miles per gallon in suburban driving. Premium gasoline is specified. Smart says regular (gas) is OK, but (the) engine won't get advertised power or rated mileage.” (Ref. 4)

“Look at the Smart as a practical car that's easier to use in an urban environment than anything else.” (Ref 3) Another reviewer reported that, “This is a city car. Sure it works on freeways, but it's made for big cities -- think Boson, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., maybe Atlanta, but certainly Chicago and San Francisco, among others. It's peppy when it should be peppy, agile when called upon to deliver, and its small when it should be small -- like finding a parking space. Two smarts can easily fit into the space allocated for larger vehicles. There's sufficient room inside for two adults with lots of head room. The seats are comfortable and adjustable.” (Ref. 5)

Smart's small size and light weight allow use of a three-cylinder engine meant to sip gasoline. Only the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic hybrids have higher mileage ratings. The Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids come close.(Ref. 4)

The rear-engine, rear-wheel drive Smart is designed and built in Hambach, France. - not a sterling recommendation. Some “features” are questionable at best. “You are likely to be turned off by the Smart’s clumsy gearbox. Smart comes only with a manual transmission that has no clutch pedal, but does have a clutch. The gearbox shifts automatically, disengaging and re-engaging the clutch on your behalf. You get the pause, or jerk, at gear-change and start-off that you'd feel if an inexperienced stick-shift driver were at the wheel.

“A manual-shift mode lets you switch gears yourself. To do that gracefully, you shift when a light-up arrow says so. Otherwise the transmission might not obey.” (Ref. 4)

Cargo carrying capacity is not overly large. Cargo space is listed as 7.8 cubic feet behind the seats, if cargo is stacked to the tops of the seats, or 12 cubic feet if you're willing to stack to the ceiling. The passenger's seat can be folded flat for more cargo space. (Ref. 4)

The Smart provides a new lower cost alternative to America’s traditionally big, heavy, gas-guzzling, polluting automobiles. There are rough edges to this import that will turn off many American consumers. Hopefully, Daimler Benz will correct its deficiencies and other auto makers will address this niche market. Urban transportation in today’s world requires solutions like the Smart car is attempting to provide.

In my 2007 article (Ref. 1), I urged the purchase and use of the Smart car (or other similarly efficient second vehicles) for urban transportation and for those trips requiring a larger vehicle, I suggested keeping the current car. But, for those trips where there is only the driver and perhaps one passenger, switch to a Smart car or equivalent. To make this economically realistic, our federal, state and local governments should do the following: “First, allow the transfer of license plates back and forth between cars. Only one at a time can be on the road. Second, make insurance rates essentially the same as for a single car, again, since only one car at a time is on the road. Third, provide significant tax incentives for purchasing the Smart car or its equivalent. Fourth, make registration fees or other automobile fees, the same as for a single vehicle. Fifth, allow the Smart car to use HOV lanes.” (Ref. 1)


  1. Solving the Personal Urban Transportation Dilemma, David Burton,, February 21, 2006.
  2. Unparalleled Parking, Janice O’Leary, The Boston Globe Magazine, Pgs 9-10, February 24, 2008.
  3. 2008 Smart Fortwo: First U.S. Drive, , Wes Siler, Jalopnik Reviews,, January 22, 2008.
  4. Smart car only fits an itsy-bitsy niche, James R. Healy, USA Today,,
  5. A Little Car with Big Ideas, Marty Bernstein, Business Week, December 6, 2007.
  24 February 2008 {Article 32; Undecided_07}    
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