Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not so Smart

I'm back from my trip to Utah.

I love my old Honda Prelude, but with 18 years and 171,000 miles behind it, I can't completely trust the old boy not to have a breakdown in the middle of nowhere, so I usually rent a car for these long trips. On three previous trips I've had a Toyota Yaris, a Toyota Corolla, and a Suzuki SX-4, and have been happy with all of them. The cheapest economy class is fine for me; my needs and tastes are pretty simple.

Well, maybe not quite as simple as Advantage Car Rental thought. This is their particular vision of an "economy" car:

That's right--it's a Smart car. I was surprised, because I didn't know anybody rented those. But I thought, what the heck. I've been kind of curious how they are to drive anyway.

This is one of those "It seemed like a good idea at the time" stories.

I can't remember the last time I drove a car this uncomfortable. Let me count the ways:

  • Harsh suspension--lowered and made harder still in this special "BRABUS" edition, which also adds low-profile tires to further degrade the ride (but look oh-so-stylish!).
  • No cruise control, combined with a heavy accelerator spring.
  • Non-adjustable steering wheel, combined with nearly non-adjustable seats.
  • Almost unpadded seats.
  • No armrest.
  • Terrible road and wind noise.
  • Car that gets catapulted sideways with every gust.
  • A shoulder belt that cuts across the neck (or at least did mine).
  • Seats that don't recline for a nap at a rest stop, because there's not enough space behind them.
  • An engine that hesitates badly on takeoff combined with an automatic transmission that lurches the car forward and back on every upshift, which together make acceleration to highway speeds a whiplash-inducing experience.

These features blend to make this the most awful, miserable, fatiguing highway cruiser I've ever been in. You remember how John Candy's car ended up in "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"--roofless and on fire? I'd have rather driven that for 820 miles than this thing. Never again.

I honestly don't understand why anybody would buy one of these cars. No exaggeration here--I can't figure out what niche they serve, other than being able to park where nothing else will. Yes, they're good on gas. I got 40.1 mpg on this trip. But so what? I got 39.2 in a Yaris on the same journey, with far more comfort and far more room for extra stuff and extra people when you need it, for essentially the same purchase price. A Honda Fit would be comparable, with even more space. As far as I can tell, you're buying half a car but for full price. I just don't get it.

Would you like to guess how this vehicle's 70 horsepower, 3-cylinder engine did trying to keep up with the 75-80 mph speed limits going uphill in the Rocky Mountains? That's right--pretty damned poorly. That's about 35 hp less than either the Yaris or Fit, with no extra economy to show for it.

Just before I left for Utah, I had occasion to be reviewing the medical records of a woman who had been rear-ended by a oil tanker truck and was suing for her injuries. She had been in a Volvo. Here's today's piece of advice: If you're going to get rear-ended by a semi, do not choose to be in a Smart at the time, unless you like the idea of "Peterbilt" being permanently stamped into your backside.

I derived one other important conclusion from my trial of this brand: No matter how hard you try, you can neither look nor feel like a race car driver when you're behind the wheel of a Smart:

Here's what my favorite car magazine had to say about the Smart fortwo and the Brabus version.

Bonus section

As usual, the drive back was beautiful. I don't know how people make that drive without stopping to take pictures of the mountains. Today I got going earlier than usual, so didn't have directly overhead sun as on previous trips. Some light fog and low-hanging clouds combined for a rather spectacular display, the glory of which my little snapshots can only hint at:


Crash said...

A great post. Both text and photos. Those little jokemobiles are dangerous. Any safety feature that can be built into them can be built into a larger car. Even the government safety ratings say cars >250 pounds differing in weight can't be compared. Yes, we want to save oil, but how much is your life worth? A quandary, for sure.

Lance said...

Your post explains a weird experience I had last summer with a Smart car. I was driving from Lexington, KY back to Durham, NC and was on I-64 when a Smart came down an on-ramp next to me. I had the cruise control set on my Honda Accord. The run from Lexington west to the KY border is relatively flat, but every time we hit the slightest rise, the Smart slowed badly and I passed him. On the downslopes, it gained speed and passed me. We must have traded positions a dozen times by the time we hit the border. The climb up into the WV mountains did it for the Smart and I left him in the dust.

That poor car was stuff to the gills with two, ummm, large people and the back piled with belongings.

Seems like a 100% fatal accident waiting to happen. No crush zones, etc. at all.

Julius_Goat said...

The first time I saw one of these was about 10 years ago when I was visiting family in Germany. I laughed, because it looked like a joke car. I remember asking how many clowns were about to come out of it.

That said, my understanding is that in Europe, where they were first in popular use, they are designed and used only for city driving. In fact, if I recall correctly, there are "public" smart cars that you can rent for as little as a single one-way trip. (A little fuzzy on the business model, so take that detail with a grain of salt.)

I don't think they're intended for highway driving. They still look silly to me.

BVUGrad2003 said...

How did you have room to bring your camera with in that car??
By the way - those are some very nice pictures - thanks for sharing!