My daughters and I watched the Smart Center being built, because it's just down the street from one of the world's best pizza joints, Pepe's. A two-story car dealership with the showroom on the second floor? What were they thinking? It turns out the place has an elevator, and only a car as small as the two-seater, environmentally friendly Smart would fit into it.
Smart Cars from Mercedes. The Smart hit the road in 2009 and has been among the most fuel efficient cars since.
The Smart Center is open now, with three models on display (the Fortwo Passion Coupe and Cabriolet, plus the Pure Coupe), but that doesn't mean you can just walk in and buy a car. There are 45,000 people on the waiting list, and it will be six months to a year before you're handed a set of keys.
Your best hope to get into a Smart car, actually, is to hang out at the Euro-styled, ultra-modern dealer and hope somebody cancels their order. Two people had done that around the time of our visit, so it was actually possible to walk in and drive away with a new Smart.
We wandered up to the second floor and sat in a Passion Coupe. The Smart is not really a new car, since it debuted in Europe in 2001, but it's been substantially improved and is certainly new here. I'd never actually been inside one. I was surprised how roomy it was for driver and passenger, and, considering the Mercedes sponsorship, also a little surprised at what looked like sub-Korean build quality (rough carpet and panel edges).
Inside a Smart Car
Everything about the Smart is quirky and cute, including the racing-inspired paddle shifters, and my girls loved it. Maya, the 13-year-old, promptly moved the Volkswagen Beetle convertible to number two on her list for a 16th birthday present. Undoubtedly U.S. Smart entrepreneur Roger Penske is pleased to learn that young customers are lining up.
Curly-haired salesman Dave Koczak (actually a "brand specialist" who doubles as a college student) wandered over and told us some salient Smart facts. They're exempt from sales tax in my state (Connecticut). The fuel economy is 33 in the city and 41 on the highway. Smarts are ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) by the California definition, but the window sticker is confusing on this point. The cars' plastic body panels are exchangeable and recyclable. The base model starts at just $11,590, but as displayed with options it was $14,410. The tricked-out yellow Cabriolet we also tried out starts at $16,590 ($18,085 as displayed).
It was pouring rain, but Koczak took me for a ride in a Cabriolet. It's no rocket: zero to 60 is promised in 12.8 seconds, and it feels even slower off the line than that suggests. Once underway it's sprightly enough, with nicely weighted steering, and there was plenty of elbow room for Dave and I. From the wheel, it feels bigger than it is, too, though getting squashed by a big truck was the primary concern of some of the would-be buyers we engaged.
Jim Motavalli testing a Smart Car / Cellphone photo by Maya Motavalli
Back from the cruise, the girls and I talked briefly to manager Emily Williams, a former event planner who has to be one of the very few women in their 20s running car dealerships in this sometimes-sexist business. "The cars are on the road now and they're living billboards for us," she says. "We're getting a lot of foot traffic. We just did a survey and 84 percent of the people on the waiting list [each paid $99] still want their cars, seven percent say they're not sure and another seven percent say they don't want to proceed."
This Smart Center will get 400 cars this year and undoubtedly sell them all quickly. With $3.30-a-gallon gasoline, hip fuel-sippers like the Smart are a hot commodity. "Can I have one, daddy?" asks Maya. "We'll see," I say.
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