The Nation's Pulse

Smart Shoppers

Anyone who'd settle for a puny Smart car must be desperate to be trendy.

By 3.19.08

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How smart, really, is the Smart car?

It's not especially inexpensive -- $11,590 for the base Pure coupe -- $13,590 for the "loaded" Passion coupe (and $16,590 for the convertible). At least, not relative to what else you can buy for that money -- for example, a Chevy Aveo ($10,235), Toyota Yaris ($12,225), Kia Spectra ($12,895), or Hyundai Accent ($12,925).

And those are subcompact sedans; they can carry four people. The so-called Smart car is a hypercompact two-seater. If you need room for even three people, you'll need to buy another car. How smart is that, exactly?

But it gets great gas mileage -- right?

Actually, not that great. EPA rates the Smart car at 33 mpg city and 40 mpg on the highway. That's not bad. Then again, a Toyota Yaris (with four doors and room for four people, remember) gets 29 city, 36 highway. So the "smart" car gets exactly 4 mpg better mileage in town and on the highway. Big whoop. And unlike traditional subcompacts, which can be driven pretty much anywhere, the Smart car is only usable as an in-city commuter.

With just a tiny 1.0 liter, 70-hp engine, the Smart is dangerously underpowered at speeds where traffic is moving faster than 45 mph or so. It needs 15-16 seconds to reach 60 mph (about 5 seconds more than the slowest current-year subcompact) and has a best-case top speed of about 90 mph, flat out. That leaves not much of a margin when trying to keep up with highway traffic running 70 or faster.

And it is at a bone-crunching disadvantage if it ever gets hit by a standard-sized car at anything above stop-and-go driving speeds. Take one out in traffic at your own risk.

How, exactly, is that smart?

If the car cost $6k -- even $8k -- it might make sense. It would be cheap transpo, especially as an in-city runabout. And at that price point, one could buy a Smart for local trips and have another, larger (and more roadworthy) car available for longer/highway trips -- and it could possibly make economic sense. But why buy a Smart that costs as much as a conventional subcompact economy car -- but which is only slightly more efficient and a lot less usable?

The only people who can live with a two-person-only vehicle as their only vehicle are singles -- and even then, what happens when you have more than one friend who needs a ride? Or one friend -- and the two of you want to go shopping? Where do you put the stuff you'll buy?

The Smart's mileage, though, is the real disappointment. It's barely better than what the best economy compacts currently deliver. An extra 4 mpg is okay -- but it's only a slight improvement and if you do the math, most of your over-the-road savings will have already been consumed by the Smart car's higher up-front costs.

One thousand dollars -- the approximate price difference between the base Smart and the lowest cost current model year economy subcompacts -- will buy you around 333 gallons of fuel at $3 per gallon. That translates into almost 10,000 miles' worth of free gasoline if you bought something like a Yaris instead (29 mpg times 333). And that's using the Yaris's city mileage for the numbers crunching. Assuming 36 mpg -- the Yaris's EPA highway mileage rating -- you'll get almost 12,000 miles of "free" gas if you bought it instead of the Smart.

And you'd have room for your friends/family -- and their stuff.

Hell, you could go out and buy a used late model Corolla or Echo, pay maybe $5,000 bucks for thing, and have free gas for the life of the car relative to what you'd spend just to buy the not-so-smart car. Or -- even better -- buy a 1999-2000-2001 VW New Beetle TDI turbo diesel. These things get 42 city/49 highway -- superior to the Smart on both counts; a good one with low mileage will cost you about $6,000-$8,000 or so, according to the used car pricing guides.

And you can take it out on the highway without first writing your last will and testament, too.

SO, WHAT IS THE APPEAL of this thing? I suspect it's of a piece with what I like to call hybrid fever. There is a segment of the population that likes to wear their green on their sleeves -- showy environmentalism rather than plain Jane common sense.

It's the reason why people spend several thousand dollars more to buy a hybrid over an otherwise equivalent standard car. They probably realize they're not saving any money (and the "environmental cost" of hybrids is actually pretty high when you take into account the totality -- raw materials, manufacturing/disposal costs, etc.), but these folks like to present a public display of their politically correct values whenever they drive. A Prius does that; an older Corolla doesn't.

If you doubt the power of image over actuality, consider the Honda Civic hybrid. Though very similar to the Toyota Prius in terms of function, it looked like an ordinary Civic -- so its owner was unable to enjoy the image boost of driving an obvious hybrid. It was a sales flop -- while the Prius has sold gangbusters.

Likewise, the Smart car isn't about being smart. It's about showing how cool/trendy -- and politically correct -- you are.

A genuinely smart Smart car would be a minimalist subcompact that weighs about 1,800 lbs., gets 55 mpg or better via a modern turbo-diesel engine -- and which has a base price of around $11,000. Unfortunately, no such car is currently available.

Which shows just how smart we really are.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.