A Special Section: Cars

A Growing Market for Small Cars

The New York Times


October 25, 2006
Test Driving

Big Guy Tries Tiny Chassis, Taking Jabs Lightly

DRIVING a Smart car is like walking a puppy. You can’t go five feet without someone stopping you to ogle it.

I wasn’t prepared for this as I drove around Manhattan in the Smart Fortwo (get it?) coupe, one of three small cars I was evaluating for driving in the city. All the attention practically made me forget those two little words I had always associated with the Smart: death trap.

“You’d be crazy to drive one of those around New York,” a colleague said to me as I was leaving my office to pick up the car. “Wear a helmet.”

Picturing my Smart, which is built by DaimlerChrysler, among hulking Peterbilt trucks, meandering city buses and manic cab drivers who rule the streets, I asked the Daimler representative if I could expect to survive a crash.

She ticked off safety features like six air bags, front and rear crumple zones and seats that are designed with extra cushioning to help absorb impact. Then she showed me a crash-test video of the Smart car running head-on into a Mercedes E-class sedan at 30 miles an hour. What little there was of Fortwo’s front end was pulverized, but the passenger cabin remained largely intact. That is because the cabin (Smart calls it a safety cell) is surrounded by three layers of steel.

So I put my faith in German safety engineering and put aside my anxieties, beginning the most unexpectedly entertaining driving experience I’ve had in my life.

First, and most unexpectedly, the Smart doesn’t feel cramped. At slightly more than 8 feet long and 5 feet in both height and width, it makes the 12-foot-long Mini Cooper look like a Cadillac.

I’m 6-foot-2, and my legs weren’t cramped in the least, even with the driver’s seat back halfway. Smart does a good job of fooling your senses to make you feel less boxed in than you actually are. A glass roof virtually eliminates any sense of claustrophobia.

Driving the Smart certainly didn’t feel like driving a car that is four feet shorter than the smallest cars on the American market. That gave me a false sense of security as I zipped around in traffic, cutting off taxis and trucks with ease. No one even cursed at me or honked because all the other drivers were busy gawking.

You can squeeze the Smart into spaces that can fit only a bicycle. It felt small only when I was parking or staring down pedestrians. They are not afraid of this little car.

To test the reactions from New Yorkers, a friend and I drove it from Upper Manhattan to Chinatown, over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Park Slope, then back. People rolled down car windows to take pictures with their cellphones. Some pointed and laughed. A police officer told me to “get a real car.”

The questions never stopped.

Is it real? Yes. But it won’t be on sale in the United States until early 2008.

How much does it cost? Smart hasn’t determined pricing yet, but in Canada the Fortwo starts at about $15,000.

Can you take that on the highway? Sure. But don’t expect a smooth ride. It felt as if the bumps were going to send it airborne.

Do you have to wind up the motor? No. The three-cylinder engine took unleaded gas and got an average of 40 miles a gallon.

Toyota Yaris Liftback

Two weekends later, I was behind the wheel of a fire-engine red 2007 Toyota Yaris Liftback. Even with the retina-searing paint job and the Yaris’s oval architecture, stares and questions were hard to come by. Compared with the celebrity status of driving the Smart, the anonymity of driving the Yaris was ego deflating.

I drove from 23rd Street near Fifth Avenue to the Upper East Side before I got a good, solid stare. My vanity finally compelled me to inch the nose of the Yaris into a crosswalk so New Yorkers would have no choice but to acknowledge my presence. Finally, the Yaris and I got an admiring look.

The driving felt light and nimble. Maneuvering it in city traffic was a cinch. The fuel economy was excellent: 34 miles a gallon in the city, 39 on the highway. A trip over the Triborough Bridge and on Interstate 278 through Queens didn’t make me feel as if I were at the mercy of the bigger vehicles.

The Yaris has another advantage over the Smart: you can walk into a Toyota dealer and actually buy one. The two-door liftback starts at around $11,000. But the version I drove, with features like antilock brakes, power locks and windows, was $15,290.

Audi A3

Next on my list was the 2007 Audi A3. As far as looks go, this was by far the most elegant of the three cars. It was also the fastest (with a 3.2-liter, 250-horsepower V6), the smoothest-riding, the most gadget-loaded and — of course — the most expensive. The sticker price was $42,600, which included a navigation system, satellite radio, a leather interior and four-wheel drive. It was also the biggest guzzler, getting 21 miles a gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. If the Smart Fortwo is at the practical and economical end of German engineering, the A3 is somewhere on the other end. It is an indulgence, but its luxury is not excessive.

Take the sport suspension. I let my test-driving companion take the wheel for a few blocks while I tinkered with the satellite radio and navigation device. He caught a stretch of green lights. A crater the width of an entire lane appeared before us. We looked at each other and winced, expecting to hit the ceiling. It barely felt like a bump.

All I could think was: “Wow. That crater would have swallowed the Smart.”