I recently spent a week driving the 2013 Smart coupe. I loved driving it. I had a ton of fun zipping around Manhattan and Brooklyn.
But I wouldn't buy one.
Why I Loved It
I've been intrigued by Smart since my approximately 12-year-old mind was blown on a trip to Paris by the first one I ever saw. I had never come across a car like it.
That's part of the sales pitch, Heiko Schmidt, Smart Product Manager, told me: Target customers include people who appreciate new and interesting design (along with Millennials, environmentalists, and city dwellers, but more on that later).
So I was pumped to get behind the wheel. And when I did, I wasn't disappointed. The Smart is powered by a 1.0-liter, three cylinder engine, which produces a measly 70 horsepower. But the car is so small (its curb weight is just 1,600 pounds), that's plenty.
I picked up the car outside our Park Avenue office and jumped right into Manhattan traffic. It measures just 8'10" long, so rapid lane changes were a breeze. The car is built for urban driving, but on a few short highway trips, I felt comfortable (not that I would take it for a road trip).
I didn't care that there was no rear view camera or blind spot sensors. The Smart is so small, you really don't need them: The visibility is great.
And parking! Parking was a breeze. When I couldn't find a single spot in a parking lot, I just put the Smart in a corner, where a larger sedan or SUV would have blocked the way of other, legitimately parked, cars.
And finding a spot in my Brooklyn neighborhood can be tricky, but in the Smart, small stretches of curb became viable spots. That's a big plus, especially considering how much of my life I currently spend trying to park the old Camry I drive on a regular basis.
I liked driving the Smart so much, I didn't even care when a little girl pointed and laughed at me.
Two things about driving the car did trouble me. First, it uses an "automated manual transmission," which offers the convenience of an automatic — the car changes gears automatically — coupled with the slow, jerky shifting of a poorly driven manual.
One way to deal with it is to ease off the gas when the car starts to shift, which makes things much smoother. Or you can put the Smart in manual mode and change gears using the lever, or with paddles mounted on the wheel. You still have to take your foot of the gas, but you won't have to guess when the gear changes will kick in.
And second, while I felt fine on the highway, I had a rude shock when I got on the Whitestone Bridge to cross from Queens into the Bronx. The car suddenly shifted to the side, enough so that I thought a tire had blown.
Then I realized: Without buildings providing protection, all 1,802 pounds of the car were being knocked around by the wind. It was a scary, unpleasant sensation.
Watch the 2013 Smart coupe in action below:
Why I Wouldn't Buy One
To be clear, I'm not saying I don't want a Smart: If I found one outside my apartment with a bow on it, I would be thrilled.
But two very important things bothered me: The price and the fuel economy.
The Smart coupe starts at $12,490, but the model I drove cost $19,490.
In comparison, a 2013 Nissan Sentra — a perfectly fine car with room for five people — starts at $15,590.
The Smart I drove was comfortable, but hardly loaded with features. The seats were heated, but there was no satellite radio, a common convenience in new cars. Fancy features are not necessary, but their absence makes spending more than $15,000 harder to justify. The spec sheet notes alloy wheels, air conditions, and power windows as extras.
Put another way, if you're going to spend $15,000 on a Smart, why not spend a few thousand more and get a small sedan? Or a Fiat 500, which is only three feet longer than the Smart, and has a back seat?
I asked Heiko Schmidt what sets the Smart car apart, and he said it "is really the perfect solution for many Americans." As a commuter car, it fits the driving behavior of many potential buyers, who don't have far to go and usually drive alone.
And it works as an extra car for drivers who own a ride better suited for long trips, and want a second vehicle for shorter trips.
I was also disappointed by the fuel economy. For a lightweight car with a one-liter engine and only 70 horsepower, I expected better than 34 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.To compare, the Sentra gets 30 mpg in the city and 40 mph on the highway.
Smart makes an electric version that gets the equivalent of 122 city mpg, but it starts at $25,000, bringing us back to my complaint about the car's pricing. Schmidt said there are no plans at the moment to make a hybrid, but the company is keeping an open mind.
To wrap up, Smart has made a car that is eye-catching and fun to drive. Its sales have been good, especially with the marketing muscle of Mercedes-Benz USA behind it.
Year over year sales climbed 92.2 percent in 2012, and the brand has logged 14 consecutive months of sales increases.
But if Smart wants to become a common choice for young buyers (like me) who care about the planet (like me) and live in cities (like me) they need to shrink their price tag and up their mpg.
Offer me a well-equipped Smart with about 45 mpg combined, for $13,000, and I'm in.
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