The case for the Smart Car

(Above: The Smart Car at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. If you haven’t seen one of these on the road yet, you will. Photo by pcfishhk/Flickr.)

Why would a man buy a Smart Car? Why would the gender that popularized mixed martial arts, worships Megan Fox and enjoys the taste of Jack Daniel’s so much that it demands the flavor of Tennessee whiskey in barbecue sauce form, why would men want to own the wimpiest-looking collection of moving parts this side of the Hello Kitty hair dryer? That’s the question I set out to answer at my local Smart Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

According to the brand specialist who greeted me in the showroom, 80 percent of all Smart buyers are men. It is possible some men are buying cars for their wives and daughters, but I can tell you, anecdotally, that seven in ten drivers I have seen behind the wheels of Smart Cars in Los Angeles are guys. “First time I saw it,” the brand specialist said, “I thought, ‘It’s cute.’ Why do men buy them? They’re practical.”

The Smart Car comes in three models. The Pure Coupe ($11,990) is basic. The Passion Coupe ($13,990) is a better-equipped version of the Pure. The Passion Cabriolet ($16,990) is the convertible. I test-drove the Passion Coupe. (Yes, the name is male repellent. I recommend that the 2010 Passion Coupe be renamed the Wes Welker Coupe.) The Passion gets 33 miles per gallon (mpg) city and 41 mpg highway. It is the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid vehicle in the United States today, according to

But can it move? The Smart Car has an electronically limited top speed of 90 mph. It is powered by a 70-horsepower, three-cylinder, one liter gasoline engine. During my test drive the car accelerated quickly enough to get onto the freeway and was small enough to slide under a moving semi trailer with ease. (OK, I might be lying about the second part.) Because the car features an automated manual transmission, automatic acceleration was jerky. Accelerating manually, which did not require the use of a clutch, but rather shifters built into the steering wheel, was smoother.

(Above: The cockpit of the Passion – soon to be Wes Welker – Coupe that I drove on Tuesday.)

Visibility is virtually 360 degrees. The Smart Car rides high – eight inches higher than a Toyota Camry, according to the brand specialist. The frame, which is 8.8 feet long, 5.1 feet wide and 5.1 feet high, wraps around the driver. Although the Passion looks small from the outside, the inside has plenty of legroom and has a back shelf area big enough for golf clubs or grocery bags. (For obvious reasons, the Smart Car never will be popular in the mafia community.) The engine resides in what is traditionally the trunk space. The car does not have a spare tire because the sizes of the front and rear tires differ.

Although the Smart Car looks like it would shatter to pieces in a head-on collision with a squirrel, the brand specialist assured me that the car’s Tridion Safety Cell makes it safe. In short, the car’s design is meant to distribute impact energy throughout the entire frame, protecting the passenger area. (Smart Car is engineered by Mercedes.) The driver and passenger also are protected by four airbags.

Is the Smart Car for you? Maybe. If your ego is wrapped up in the size of your truck, then no, the Smart Car is not for you. But if you are the kind of guy who prefers Vampire Weekend over Kid Rock, or who knows more about Manchester United than the Dallas Cowboys, or who likes David Cross more than Larry The Cable Guy, then the practical Smart Car is worth a look. What will the ladies think? Here’s one thing to consider. There is a definite antidouchebag backlash sweeping the country. The Smart Car might be the least-douchiest car ever built.

(Above: Which one was easier to park? Which one gets better gas mileage? Which one’s owner is not overcompensating for the size of his junk? These are all questions potential Smart Car owners should consider. Photo by barteverts/Flickr.)

(Enjoy what you just read? Check out my review of the Angry Whopper here, my review of Google Mail Goggles here and my review of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book here.)

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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