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PostSubject: Take a look!   Sat 29 Jul - 9:06


Driving Smart
First Drive: 2001 ZAP Smart Fortwo
By EDMUNDS.COM EDITORS


It's a typical morning in Los Angeles, which is to say that traffic is locked up solid.

I'm sitting in a 2001 ZAP Smart Fortwo looking at a long line of cars, trucks and SUVs snaking into the distance with heat waves rising off them. My vision blurs suddenly as I imagine a scene sometime in the future, a scene in which Americans have begun to drive cars like this one.

Let's face it, folks, we don't just have a gas price problem. We really have an interrelated set of problems: high gas prices, congested cities and polluted skies. If you're in rural Montana reading this, you think I'm nuts. If you're in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or another American city, you know exactly what I mean.

Back to my daydream. If everyone in this line of traffic were driving a Smart car (mine was loaned to us by the forward-thinking people at ZAP), we could have twice as many cars on the road now. That's right. The Ford Explorer, for example, is 16 feet long (193.5 inches) while the Smart is 8 feet, 2 inches long (98 inches). Does that mean that, gasp, traffic would actually be moving? What a concept.

"Smart" gas mileage
But space is not the only thing that's being saved here. The Ford Explorer with a V6 gets 20 mpg on the highway. The Smart gets 40 mpg. So gasoline consumption would be cut in half.

Now, if you're some kind of a weirdo and you want to actually get somewhere in your car, you will look forward to the arrival, in model-year 2008, of the Smart Fortwo made by DaimlerChrysler. Until now, the only way to bring a Smart to this country was to get one that was "Americanized" by ZAP, in Santa Rosa, California. ZAP (which stands for Zero Air Pollution) also sells foreign-made electric cars and a host of electric scooters and bikes. However, under a new arrangement between DaimlerChrysler and former auto racer Roger Penske, the forthcoming Fortwo will be sold through 30-50 dealerships in densely populated areas of the U.S.

I drove a 2001 Smart Fortwo, and the 2008 car will obviously be a redesigned model. Still, it gave me a feeling of what it will be like to drive this diminutive car in the land of the giants.

Frequently asked questions about Smart
Everywhere I went, people wanted to know what it was. Here is a typical exchange:

Them: What is that thing?
Me: It's a Smart car made by Mercedes-Benz.
Them: It's so cute! But I wouldn't want to get hit by a Yukon in that thing.
Me: What would you want to get hit by a Yukon in?

Actually, I didn't really say that because my parents raised me well. Instead, I blandly nodded while grinding my teeth. Still, safety is obviously top-of-mind for most people. So let's go into that first.

Is it safe?
The Fortwo is, of course, loaded with airbags. But it also relies on what is called a "tridion hemispherical, steel safety shell," an egg-shaped cage around the passenger compartment designed to absorb impact and protect the driver and passenger. How well does it work? It hasn't been crash tested in the U.S. yet but received a three-star crash test rating from NCAP (the European New Car Assessment Programme). However, there are an assortment of other safety features such as skid control and an electronic stability program with antilock four-wheel disc brakes. So, your chances of driving your way out of an accident are good. If, on the other hand, you're at an intersection minding your own business, and don't notice the guy in a Hummer approaching who has decided that talking on his cell phone is more important than watching traffic, all we can say is we hope you're wearing clean underwear.

It seems that there is actual safety, and then there is the perception of safety. In other words, do you feel safe driving the Smart Fortwo? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Once inside the car you tend to forget you are in a microcar. There is plenty of room in here; stretch your arm out and you can't touch the windshield. Turn around, however, and you'll be amazed to see the back of the car is only about a foot and a half behind you. This is great when you're parking, a little scary when picturing that Hummer.

Smart specs
The Fortwo is powered by a rear-mounted 61-horsepower turbocharged three-cylinder engine, coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission with available sport-shift programming. The car is best driven in the sport-shift mode since it's a bit light on power. Given that the Smart is designed for congested city traffic, the power is just fine; after all, the whole idea is to save gas. Weight is kept to a trim 1,588 pounds, in part by the use of plastic body panels.

Naturally, being an automotive journalist, I took the car into the Hollywood Hills and romped along Mulholland Drive. The Fortwo climbs hills with enthusiasm, corners nicely ("turns on a dime" is literal in this case, not figurative), and the rack and pinion steering provides great feedback. Our only reservation was that the car seemed bouncy and pitched slightly on rough pavement, perhaps due to its short wheelbase.

The good news about the Fortwo is its maneuverability -- able to shoehorn its way into almost any parking space. You even go out of your way to pull U-turns on tight streets, or maybe several of them, and squeeze between blocked vehicles. The Fortwo is nearly 5 feet wide, while the aforementioned Explorer is 8 feet across. The small dimensions are one thing, the feeling of maneuverability is another: You know where this car begins and ends, so placing it in small spaces is a snap.

Two people + two bags
While the Smart is at home in jam-packed cities, it could also be used for a weekend getaway. It cruises nicely at highway speeds, but has a governor that caps it at 85 mph. The rear storage space can hold two small bags or a week's groceries. Access is through a two-piece rear tailgate where the glass top lifts up and a small gate lowers down. There are plenty of other storage trays throughout the Fortwo. The air conditioning is provided via two billiard ball-sized vents on either side of the dashboard.

A ZAP spokesman mentioned that while the Fortwo is EPA rated at 40/40 city/highway mpg, customers report getting 60 mpg on the highway. ZAP has put about 200 Fortwos on U.S. roads, but has taken orders for some 100,000 Smart cars. The company plans to continue converting Fortwos for the American market until the new Smarts arrive from Europe and are sold through Penske's United Auto Group.

The gas-powered Fortwo will be the first model to arrive on our shores. The future may see the introduction of a diesel Smart car or even one with a hybrid powertrain. The sticker price on the car will likely be $15,000, which places it on the high end of the economy market. However, it is still a good buy when you consider the features it includes.

The last word
DaimlerChrysler has been talking about bringing this microcar to the U.S. for several years. Now, with gas prices high and fears of global warming on the rise, our only question is this: What took you so long?

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.


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