by Casey Williams
“Never buy a French car unless you in fact live in France,” I remember a journalist writing during the ‘80s, when Renaults and Peugeots were tossing parts, reliability, and market share like shucked snail shells. This echoed in my head as I went online last year, swiped $99 off my debit card, and ordered a German-engineered, French-built, Smart ForTwo. They were a sight in Paris, Florence, and Rome when I traveled there and I wanted to take some Euro va-ca home. One year later, here I am – in very-middle-America Indianapolis – driving a French car.
It was a long road for me to get here. I’m sure I was sitting in high school study hall, wearing my “Columbus Sailed The Ocean Blue in 1492” Swatch watch, inhaling car magazines as usual, when I read the Swiss watch company was developing a car. A Swatch car! How cool. The long story of how Swatch founder Nicolas Hayek got way over his head trying to bring the car to market, teamed temporarily with Volkswagen, and eventually lost control of his car company to the great Daimler-Benz ended happily. If the Mercedes 190 had been a huge risk for the benchmark luxury maker, then the 1998 Smart (stands for Swatch Mercedes ART) was a calculated leap into the crazy zone. Nobody had ever built a car like this. The spec sheet reads like an exotic: Rear drive, mid-engine, two seats, tight steering, and compact dimensions. In reality, the Smart is small even by European standards at just 106” long, 61” wide, and 61” tall – able to fit end-to-end with my Corvette on one side of the garage. This presented some real safety and space challenges.
To achieve an array of 4- and 5-star crash ratings, engineers created the tridion safety cell, which derives its name from the three pieces of sheet metal that come together to form a protective cage. You can see the cell from the outside as the black or silver trim that outlines the passenger compartment. In an accident, the front and rear give way like an Indy racer, but do not allow destructive forces to crumple the safety cell. It’s perhaps the most creative crash cell design from the company that pioneered the concept on luxury sedans fifty years ago. In internal and federal tests, the tiny Smart protects much like a mid-size sedan. So, to answer friends’ most popular question, it is safe.
Given the minimal footprint, you might expect a cramped cabin. Instead, the tall profile lets passengers enter and exit easily and provides command-of-the-road sightlines. Designers allowed the passenger seat to sit slightly further back than the driver’s seat, freeing up shoulder room for both positions. A clear polycarbonate roof provides an airy feel.
I planned to order just a basic Pure-grade coupe, but ended up choosing the uplevel Passion coupe for a couple of thousand more. Then, I proceeded to check all of the options including heated leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, six-disc changer, subwoofer, foglamps, and “bug eye” clock and tachometer. A tailgate and fold-forward passenger seat allow longer items to enter. Passion models are upgraded with paddle shifters on the steering column for the sequential transmission. It’s loaded like a C-Class Mercedes for half the price.
I use the paddle shifters to get maximum use of the 71-horsepower engine with three hamster holes. That’s more than adequate to move 1,800 lbs. Shifts for the automated five-speed manual transmission can be abrupt, but talented drivers learn to lift off the throttle when a shift is imminent. Otherwise, put it in full manual mode and use the paddles at your pleasure. Fuel economy is rated a frugal 33/41-MPG city/hwy. European diesel-powered models do considerably better.
Last weekend, I drove through a snowstorm to visit my relatives two hours away. All of the electronics and balanced chassis handled the poor weather like a pro, but the 30-mph crosswinds nearly cramped my arms. Passing semis in the left lane, at 75 mph, took nerve. Odd little floor-pivoting pedals work like the original VW Beetle, but are connected to electronic stability control, traction control, four-wheel ABS, emergency brake force control, brake cornering control, and hill start control.
Only buy a French car if you in fact live in France. We’ll have to see if I made a huge mistake or spit in the face of destiny. So far, I’m pretty happy with my German-engineered, French-build micro-car. It isn’t for everyone, but is perfect for some. A ten-year history and Mercedes engineering go a long way towards building my confidence. I’ve followed the car from the start, saw them in Europe, and now have one in my American garage. I’ll let you know how it goes.
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