In my vision of the eco-future, we would all live in energy-efficient, solar-powered homes producing zero waste. Gas guzzlers would be gone from our driveways, and in their place would be tiny but cleverly designed low-emission cars getting 100 miles per gallon or more. They'd look a lot like Smart cars.
Notice that I said they'd look like Smart cars. I fear that the actual vehicle soon to be delivered to these shores won't quite match its ultra-cool image. Let me add a disclaimer here: I haven't actually driven the newly revised Smart ForTwo yet, though I have been offered trips to California for that purpose. It may yet exceed my expectations.
Roger Penske, a legendary race car driver and auto entrepreneur with a $17 billion empire built around truck leasing and a string of dealerships, is building a U.S. network for the Smart with doors scheduled to open early next year. The car, initially launched in partnership with Nicholas Hayek of Swatch Watch fame, has been on European roads for six years. It is a fixture in $9-a-gallon Europe, and 10,000 have been sold in Canada. Earlier attempts to introduce it on the U.S. market were aborted.
Priced between $12,000 and $16,000 (for the convertible), the eight-foot Smart will certainly be affordable. It is also a strict two-seater with very limited luggage space, though that's slated for expansion in the U.S. model. My biggest concerns are the Smart's questionable driving experience and the limited 40-mpg projected fuel economy.
Consumer Reports recently described a Smart ForTwo as "the worst vehicle we've experienced in many years," thanks to its cramped interior, noisy three-cylinder engine and leisurely acceleration (23 seconds to 60 mph).
The Toyota Prius is the 12th best-selling car in the U.S. (number one in northern California) because its fuel economy and low emissions are complemented with incredible competence. I own a $15,000 Honda Fit that gets 38 mpg on the highway, and offers low emissions. It also seats five comfortably and is spectacularly adaptable to carrying different cargo. Consumer Reports rates the Fit highly, but it still has a relatively low profile in the U.S. The Fit hasn't yet achieved a high coolness factor, but it does many, many things well. Can the Smart measure up?
"Green" cars can't just look the part. I hope that the American-market Smart will be a great car, and much improved over the laggard driven by Consumer Reports. I love the look of it. I love the concept of it. I'll drive it soon and let you know.
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