Smart and the City

July 28, 2008
My personal tale of two cities started last week in Dusseldorf, where I spent a couple of days driving the new Benz GLK, and is concluding this week at the wheel of the 2008 smart fortwo in San Francisco.

The smart's a funny car, one that inspires a Euro ecstasy in some drivers, and mortal loathing in others--like Motor Trend's Frank Markus, who gets all animated when you try to defend the little two-seater: "The only thing that car excels at is being short!" he sputters.

Being short, though, is a real advantage in a place like San Francisco, where I've easily seen a dozen coupes and cabriolets in just two days. Parking is horrific here; usually, I can't go a single trip without getting at least one ticket (score: already taken care of this week), and spaces are so valuable that the half-car length of the fortwo is a boon when you're just trying to squeeze into a legal spot and make a dinner happen.

The downsides to the smart's convenient size are vast, though. Crosswinds are the biggest problem; in a 20-mph gust across the 101, I was blown halfway into the next lane at 65 mph. The self-shifting manual gearbox is a downer, interrupting a decent head of steam to take its shifts. The brake pedal has an altogether different feel from the light steering and is nearly impossible to modulate smoothly.

The biggest problem in angry traffic is size. Drivers think nothing of cutting off the little smart as if it were sport. Crossing the Bay Bridge, at least three drivers tried to punt me into the middle lane while merging--one with a wicked grin on his face.

As long as you keep it within city limits at city speeds, the smart proves out its name, though it's not a cheap answer to any problem and not a great fuel miser, either. It does get attention everywhere, and it's a visible sign of change in an era when the word is more important than the meaning.

Earlier this month, I asked if you thought smart was a success. After spending more time in one, I'm inclined to say it is--but I need to ask a smarter question next time.

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