The first time I saw this tiniest of tiny cars, the Smart Fortwo, I wondered whether I could shove it over on its side all by myself. A female colleague at the Herald, at first sight, excitedly just wanted "to hug it." And a male colleague, having taken it for a spin, came back to report: "It's a babe magnet!''
Such are a sampling of the varied reactions the 2008 SmartForTwo will trigger. Some folks still aren't certain exactly what it is: "Is that one of those half-electric cars?" a bewildered Civic owner asked at a gas station. "Does it get, like, 60 miles a gallon?
The answer to both questions is no. It is gas-powered, all three cylinders and 70 horses of it. And mileage is likely to be between 33 and 43 mpg, not quite as impressive as one might expect from a toy-like machine. And nowhere have I seen an explanation as to why this little 1.0-liter engine-that-could (barely) can't come up with better mileage figures. No kidding, a 10-year-old Honda Civic can match it.
There are some niceties about the Smart, which is Daimler's attempt to sell Europe's version of cute and economical to Americans tired of big, gas-sucking SUVs. But let's cut to the chase: You can park the Smart in a closet.
One recent evening my neighborhood's roads were being repaved and everyone had to clear the driveways and squeeze somewhere on a street or swale. Piece of cake; you could park this jitterbug in a mailbox.
The Smart is so small I missed it, peering from my upstairs window, when it first was delivered to the driveway.
That brings me to nicety No. 2: a surprising interior. From the inside, it feels like a totally different, much larger car. You can't imagine this is the same golf cart you were just looking at in the driveway. Even six-foot-plus types will have no complaints with the legroom, headroom and shoulder room.
Visibility out the huge windows is excellent. Open the gigantic sunroof, which makes up most of the dinky top, and you can see the world.
It's also good-looking inside, with two-tone color combinations and quality materials.
Cargo space, though, is about the size of a big suitcase. I read where one new owner said it was fine for he and his dog. Well, better avoid the big economy bags of Alpo for old Fido. There are a mere 12 cubic feet of space behind the two seats, and that's if you stack to the ceiling.
Access to the rear is gained through a window that flips up and tailgate that pulls down, much like the old station wagons. The rear window on the test car rattled a bit on bumpy roads.
There also are some not-so-niceties about the Smart. With its limited herd of horses and torque that tops out at just 68 foot-pounds, it is slow from the get-go, even shudders a bit at the initial acceleration. Shifting of the five-speed automatic is sluggish and tedious, actually lurching the car forward each time it grabs.
Once it labors through the gears, however, it is able to keep up with the traffic and is quite tolerable even at 70-75 mph. The speed is electronically controlled at 90 mph and can't imagine it has much more in it anyway.
The wind has its way with the Smart, not much of a surprise considering its lack of aerodynamics. At 164 inches long and 61 inches high and wide, it is shaped like a big snowball. The two doors occupy most of its length.
One reasonable question Smart Fortwo owners are sure to hear: "Is that thing safe?"
Surprisingly, it is safer than you might think. It's packed with safety technology like front and side air bags and stability and traction control systems. And, its unit-body "steel cage'' of a cabin reportedly has performed well in crash tests.
The Fortwo base is called the Pure, which comes in around $12,000. Next comes the better-equipped Passion. There also is a convertible for another $3,000 or so.
Does the pint-size Smart have a future in the land of big cars, big buffets and big egos? Well, it seems to be off to a good start as many have plopped down the $99 deposits.
But it faces a challenge, I believe, in the U.S. and South Florida. It can serve a niche for short-trips in small towns where in-town parking is a hair-tugging event. But in this land of highways, shopping malls and sprawling parking lots, it makes less sense.
Cute? Sure. I'll get back to you on the "babe-magnet'' thing.
Base Price: $12,235
As Tested (Smart Fortwo Passion): $14,235