Friday, February 6, 2009

Not So Smart Car

In these uncertain economic times, it seems that change is the only certainty. Wild fluctuations in gas prices over the last few years are taking their toll on American drivers, who are once again demanding smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles. It's almost as though we had forgotten everything we went through in the 1970s! The news media reports that the era of gas-guzzling Sport-Utility Vehicles has come to an end. But is the growing demand for shrinking cars really all it's cracked up to be?

Why I Hate the Smart Car
Let's look at some of the hottest selling compact and subcompact cars of today, such as the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris, and the Chevrolet Aveo. Compared to their mid-size and full-size counterparts which emphasize things like power, comfort, and performance, this new generation of super small vehicles sacrifices all of these attributes for the sake of economy.

By reducing everything from engine displacement to wheel size, subcompact vehicles can achieve more miles per gallon because they are significantly smaller and lighter than competing models. You cannot get something for nothing however, and there are some serious trade-offs to consider when purchasing a subcompact economy car.

While it is true that small, narrow tires offer reduced rolling resistance, they also have a smaller contact patch with the pavement which results in reduced grip and handling. Vehicles made of lightweight materials such as plastic and aluminum instead of steel may provide the benefit of weight reduction at the cost of occupant safety. Finally, vehicles with tiny, underpowered engines may cause drivers to ride the accelerator more aggressively in order to maintain speed. When looking at the trade-offs necessary to achieve fuel economy, I have to question whether those few extra miles per gallon are really worth it.

Take for example the Smart car. This darling of the media industry has been highly praised as the leader of the pack: it is the smallest, the lightest, and the most efficient gasoline-powered vehicle for sale in North America. From 2004 to 2006, Smart cars were available only as grey market imports which were sold through independent dealerships. These import models were modified to meet US DOT safety standards and were not affiliated with Daimler AG, the German parent company that owns Smart. In 2006, Daimler announced that the Smart car would be available for sale in the US starting in 2008.

The main difference between the grey market imports and the 2008 Smart Fortwo is the motor. The small, turbocharged engine has been replaced with a larger, 1.0-liter non-turbo engine. The new engine has just 3 cylinders and puts out about 70 HP. The Fortwo still holds just two occupants (one driver and one passenger), and it boasts an EPA estimated mileage of 33mpg city and 41mpg highway (see The 2009 Fortwo starts at $11,590 for the base model, $13,590 for the Passion Coupe, and $16,590 for the convertible model.

It seems the timing of the Smart car couldn't be better, with gas prices soaring and drivers desperate for an easy answer. A reservation program launched in 2007 offered interested customers a spot on Smart's waiting list, which now has an estimated wait time of 12 to 18 months for delivery. Clearly, thousands American drivers are eager to get their hands on the Smart car.

To me, the Smart car phenomenon is absolutely baffling. I am shocked that American car buyers really are gullible enough to fall for the Smart car. Eleven thousand dollars for an EPA-combined 36 miles per gallon? Surely they must be joking! The Smart car strikes me as a rip off as both a driver and a consumer. There are plenty of ways to get better mileage without getting into this pitiful econobox of a car.

If miles per gallon are your top priority, you are probably the kind of person who has a panic attack every time gas jumps from $3.25 a gallon to $3.75 per gallon. The idea of paying more money and receiving less product just boils your blood! Well, that's exactly what buying a Smart car boils down to. Eleven thousand dollars for a car with no cargo space to speak of, a two-person capacity, and an engine that's less powerful than your average motorcycle. Hah! If you have ever considered buying a Smart car to save on fuel costs, consider the facts:

The 2009 Honda Civic and 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt both offer 4-passenger seating, an honest-to-goodness trunk, and 4-cylinder engines that are more powerful than the Smart car by 30 to 50 HP. Oh, and they get comparable mileage at 33 and 36 mpg combined, respectively. If you're going to buy a brand new car, why not get something you can actually use? Where are you going to put your groceries in a Smart car, on your lap? Are you going to pile in and take a road trip in that thing? The point is that the Smart car is not significantly more fuel efficient than a normal car, but its miniature size, high cost, weak engine, and limited cargo space make it significantly less practical to own.

Proof That the Smart Car Sucks
It is not at all necessary to buy a brand new car to get good mileage. On Internet message boards, drivers routinely brag about squeezing 50 to 80 miles per gallon out of conventional gasoline vehicles. How are they doing this? By pairing the most efficient vehicles on the used car market with special driving techniques in a combination known as hypermiling. All you have to do is pick up a used Geo Metro, Ford Festiva, or Honda CRX-HF in the AutoTrader, check your tire pressure, and just drive the speed limit. I'm not joking; it really is that simple!

According to the The Kelley Blue Book, you should be able to find a Honda Civic hatchback in good condition for about $2,000 bucks. If you were to buy one and spend maybe $4,000 dollars fixing it up on things like new tires, a new stereo, and maybe some body work or what have you, you would still save a pile of money compared to anyone who spent $12,000 dollars on a Smart car. Not only that, but you'll enjoy equal or greater mileage depending on your driving style.

Finally, if you really hate paying for gasoline SO much that you would sacrifice everything fun about driving (such as performance, handling, safety, and comfort) by purchasing a Smart car, then maybe driving is just not for you. Find a job closer to your home and ride a bike to work. You could also move to an area with a good mass transit system and take the bus, light rail, or subway to work. The idea that anyone can justify cramming themselves into a Smart car for a 30 mile daily commute and feel good about themselves is just preposterous.

You know, I think it's pretty ironic that they call them Smart cars, because based on the facts you'd have to be pretty freaking dumb to buy one (or just really poor at math).[Note: This article was originally written October 16, 2008 and revised February 6, 2009.]December 2009 Update: The Smart Car has been voted one of the ten worst cars of the decade by automotive review site