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Almost smart (?)

June 11, 2008 Guest 19 Comments

A guest editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

My wife and I almost bought a smart fortwo pure this weekend. Or, more accurately, I tried to convince her we should buy one. And, more precisely, her no vote won out.

A little history – last summer I signed up on the waiting list (www.smartusa.com). Last winter, I was able to order what I thought would work. A few weeks ago, I got a call from the local dealer (Plaza) saying they had the vehicle in. After test driving, looking at reviews and much internal discussion, we decided not to buy a smart. For many urban dwellers, the question today is why? Here are a few answers . . .

My wife’s biggest concern can be summed up in one statement, “How do I know that you won’t get killed in that?” The reality is that there is no good answer. Even though it’s incredibly well designed (good handling, great brakes, stability control, multiple air bags), it’s also tiny. It does very well in the crash tests (www.iihs.org), but the results do contain a disclaimer that you can’t beat the laws of physics. I’ve always been a fan of quirky, relatively unsafe vehicles (one Corvair, one Jeep and three VW vans, to name a few that I’ve owned), plus I’ve ridden a bicycle for years in urban traffic, so I’m both aware of the dangers and accepting of the risks. The reality remained is that the smart is a cross between racing bar stool (http://racingbarstool.com) and golf cart, wrapped in plastic panels. It’s a good urban vehicle. It gets scarier as speeds and the number of lanes increase – freeways aren’t smart-friendly places, especially with the current mix of semis, SUV’s and super-duty pickups.

If we lived and/or worked in a more congested part of town, the smart’s tiny size would be more of an attraction. The reality is that we live in a suburban-feeling part of St. Louis, a mile from the Shrewsbury Metrolink station, and we have both a driveway and generous on-street parking available. I work in Clayton, where my employer provides parking in a parking structure. Parking simply is not an issue – either there’s a spot available (99% of the time, there is) or there isn’t – there are no half spots where a smart could squeeze in. And when we go downtown, we usually hop on Metrolink, which, again, at the Shrewsbury station, has plenty of regular-size spaces available. The reality, for us (and many other St. Louisians), is simply that a tiny car offers no parking advantages, unlike places like Victoria, British Columbia, where they have created smaller spaces (http://governing.typepad.com/13thfloor/2008/06/cities-fighting.html#comments) to better utilize limited land in a dense urban area.

The other half of the equation is getting better fuel economy. The smart’s fuel mileage is rated at 33 city and 40 highway. While this compares favorably with the Miata I’m currently driving, it’s not that much better, plus the smart requires premium gas, unlike the regular I’m using now. I’m fortunate, I usually get between 26 and 28 mpg, so I only need to fill up every couple of weeks. Doing the math, the actual savings would be small – 270 miles at 27 mpg in the Miata costs me $39.00 (10 gallons at $3.899 for regular gas), compared to 270 miles at 35 mpg in the smart (7.7 gallons at $4.099 for premium), which would cost me $31.56. Sure, I’d be saving ±$7.50 twice a month, but that would be nowhere near the cost of a new car payment of $250-$300 per month (the Miata’s paid for). Plus, my wife really likes the Prius, so we’re going to wait for one of those – their fuel economy rating of 48 city and 45 highway beats the smart by 10%-40%, plus you get a real car with a real back seat. I know, I know, the Prius costs twice as much ($29,000, for what we want, versus $13,500 for the basic smart) and it would take a million miles of better fuel economy to make up for the higher purchase price, but it’s a much better vehicle for our driving needs. The real question is why, at 2/3 the weight and half the size, doesn’t the smart do better?!

The final issue I need to raise is the transmission in the smart. It only comes with one, an “automated” manual transmission, and it is the vehicle’s biggest Achilles heel. It’s noted in every review and it was the biggest reason I didn’t push harder to buy the car. It shifts slowly and erratically. It may be good in slower stop-and-go-traffic (where you’re stuck in first gear), but it makes driving in typical rush-hour traffic a real pain, as it shifts up and down, poorly. A good CVT (continuously-variable transmission, like Nissan makes) would be a much better answer than this crude device. And given no track record on repairs, I’m not sure if longevity will be part of the smart’s charms. That said, I still view the smart as a great alternative in the right situations. For someone like Steve, who has limited parking available in a loft conversion, being able to fit two vehicles in the space designed for one can be a great asset. It’s also great if you’re fighting for on-street parking in areas where spaces aren’t striped. But until “my” world moves away from the standard 9′ x 18′ (or bigger) parking spots, I’m going to shoot for the best of both worlds, a bigger vehicle and better gas mileage.

Local architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.

Steve’s Reaction:Thanks Jim for sharing your thought process. In places like Seattle where they have ‘pay-n-display’ systems and no defined parking spaces a microcar such as the smart ForTwo will have a greater advantage than here where every space will hold a Chevy Suburban suv. Due to my stroke-induced disability I can no longer operate my scooter so I am car shopping — used car shopping. If I could afford it I’d buy a smart in a flash — it is the perfect urban car.


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. john says:

    Smart cars serve as vehicles for police officers in German cities. They are fast and are able to get through traffic problems much better than what is used in the USA…of course they use motorcycles and bikes too. Of course they care about having prosperous cities and believe that these cities need to serve people not cars.
    – –
    The problem here is that the real welfare queens are driving large SUVs and pickup trucks on roads subsidized by the federal handouts and businesses that provide free parking. Businesses and governments charge higher prices for their products to compensate for these additional costs which are designed to benefit a minority while the majority pays.
    – –
    The point? You’re still driving to work even though you have what some would consider a “green” attitude. It is the Lou.

  2. zink says:

    It all depends on what you think of as “Safe”
    I think the smart car is SAFER… it is smaller and therefore a LESS chance to be hit. When you are driving an SUV that is 3x bigger… well you are 3x more likely to get side swiped. 🙂

    However, I think the writer is correct in the “practicality” of it. In this city the benefit would be minimal.

  3. What we need here is the REAL Smart… not the bigger, gas-guzzling, watered down USA version. Show me the Diesel! Compared to my old VW TDi which got a lifetime average of 49mpg’s (and could run on waste vegetable oil) and the total non-issue of parking space in STL, these things are fools gold. Classic USA mentality – spend money to “save” money!

  4. Nick Kasoff says:

    The real solution to your problem is obvious: Get ye to the MINI dealer. A MINI offers the nimble handling of a small car, excellent safety ratings, an appearance that is cuter than the Smart (and not nearly as freaky), decent gas mileage, and your choice of a good CVT or manual transmission. As to reliability, I’ve had mine since January ’05, with not a single problem.

  5. john says:

    Proposing higher mileage as the answer is truly fools’ gold. Certainly a step in the right direction but too little to make a meaningful change in the imbalance to come. As already exhibited in the increase of refined crude to 13x of what is was just ten years ago, the future problem will not just be price but also access to supplies. The Chairman of BP has stated that “we have forty years of available reserves” at current consumption levels. Wow a total of 40 years! Diesel is also made from crude. The costs of fertilizers used to create vegetable oil have risen 1600% in the last five years and it is made from biofuels. Virtually all commodity prices have risen dramatically with the substitution of production from food to fuel.
    – –
    To be a sustainable community and one that can prosper while living with lower infrastructure costs, creating more and bigger parking lots for vehicles which pollute and kill is exactly the wrong way to go. Parking lots use tons of materials manufactured from crude and create drainage problems which MSD is just beginning to incorporate in their rate structures. Sure cars are needed but it is balance between efficient uses and abuses that must be appreciated and become part of public policies.
    – –
    Motorized vehicles can never replace the efficiency created by the use of sidewalks or bikes. Most of the trips people here make or of distances of three miles or less. The subsidization in the use motorized vehicles (also operated on the free lunch of zero pollution/carbon taxes) have prevented the free market from creating more livable communities. I remember walking to corner stores to buy milk, eggs and other commonly used daily food items but those opportunities are now largely destroyed as the infrastructure design favors big box retailers. The solution begins with changing a culture that favors consumption over investment, cars over people, speed over style, convenience over social interaction,…

  6. DeBaliviere says:

    Personally, I’d go with a Yaris or Mini Cooper over the Smart.

  7. Craig says:

    What about style? Cars are about style. The Smart car has zero.

  8. John M. says:

    I recently went through a similiar decision, although for words not as eloquently quoted on here, discounted the smart before even entering it into possible consideration. It wasn’t the size, it was the lack of value the size brought to the equation. The gas mileage for this car should be better than it is!

    Given the choices in new cars, I did all of the neccessy repairs to my 1999 Honda Accord. I wanted something else, I just couldn’t justify it given the limited choices available. Heck the Honda still gets 30-31 HWY, so there isn’t much else out there to justify a change until the Honda stops delivering that kind of service.

    However if I could find a gently used Honda Insight or perhaps wait until 2010 when GM and Toyota have Plug In Hybrids, Nissan to follow in 2012.

  9. Just 40 mpg highway? That’s… kinda pathetic, for such a tiny car. I got nearly that out of a plain old ’94 Honda Civic (37 mpg.) I’d expect 50mpg or better, just looking at it.

  10. H says:

    The smart, is, just that, incredibly smart. The writer of this article, and his wife, simply, no offense, arn’t. And, as is well known, one can’t fix stupid.

    As an owner of the smart convertible, with over 3500 miles, it is even far better than my big expectations.

    If I had any other car as a second car to the smart in my garage, it would sit un-driven (as my present second car does), every day, in the garage. The smart’s new great looks, fun factor, low gas appetite, huge inside room for tall big people, strong safety ratings, and safe feel high ride feel profile, the dual choice smooth semi automatic transmission giving either easy auto “D” or fun manual driving at any time, and 50 MPG “if you try”, the one touch easy open convertible roof at any speed, the never rust dent resist changeable body panels, etc., etc., … gives the 2008 usa smart a 10 to 1 advantage, or more, over anything else on the market, or coming to the market in the next few years, at any price.

    The 2008 smart convertible, may be the most all-new beautiful, most perfect, most enjoyable vehicle, in the world.

    Best regards.

    [slp — when calling someone stupid it probably doesn’t help your point by misspelling aren’t.  Be civil folks, feel free to disagree but there is no point in calling folks stupid.

    I agree with you that the smart fortwo is a winning combination, maybe I’ll look for a used ‘Passion’ model in a couple of years.]

  11. kevin d says:

    Full Electric:
    Check out the ‘news’ section… New batteries and test in Manhattan (April 08 articles).

  12. John M. says:

    H, are you describing a car or a new religion? I am happy that not only are you not struck with buyers remorse, but in fact are quite ecstatic about your new purchase, good for you. No offense to you, but you sound a little to tweaked that others must see it your way.

    Smart should feel good that so many are thinking about a Smart car as a legitimate alternative to otherwise traditional purchases of size and horsepower, with little bits of economy mixed in. So they, mercedes, aka Smart, are on the right track to things as they begin here in the states again after an unsuccesful first attempt.

    Kevin D, I think Zenncarrs out of canada is still awaiting that battery breakthrough promised by EESTOR, In April 2008, ZENN Motors announced a highway speed vehicle for 2009 using EEstor’s capacitors which will achieve 80 mph speeds, 250 mile range and charge in 5 minutes.

    Zenn invested quite a bit of capital in EESTOR with no results that had been seen outside the secretive headquarters of Texas. I investigated a possible dealership with this company and I remain impressed at the ramping up of developments financially, (stock is trading up this year, Lockheed-Martin involvement and partnership) but as of yet no formal testing has been conducted on the controversial battery design. It remains somewhat controversial, although nobody knows for sure yet.

    Not only does Zenn propose to sell you a car, they propose with this battery technology to be able to retrofit your existing internal combustion engine with one of these battery engines developed. If true, wow!

    Things are looking good, just anxious to see if EESTOR can live up to its claims. Cheers.

  13. Jim Zavist says:

    H, I don’t think our choice to not buy a smart falls into the realm of “stupid”, nor does our choice in any way invalidate your decision. We made the choice that we did simply because better fuel mileage (in a Prius) is more important to us than small size (in a smart fortwo). Life is full of choices, and our needs are most likely different than yours (and we are at least making environmental issues and impacts a part of our decision-making process, unlike too many other people).
    The bigger-picture, urban design part of this equation is the impact the “average” American vehicle has on multiple design decisions, everything from the size of parking spaces to the width of roadways to the size of garage doors on suburban tract homes. Something as simple as being able to shrink the size of a “standard” parking space by 15% (from the typical 9’ x 18’ to 8’ x 16’), easily accomplished if our average vehicle size shrinks by 15%, would allow developers to make their parking lots either 15% smaller or allow them to increase site density by 12%-15%. And, yes, increasing density IS a good thing – the alternative is simply more sprawl. But, unfortunately, we simply can’t build to the average, we need to build to the 90th or 95th percentile. If we don’t, we end up with Suburban’s and even Camry’s taking up two spaces.
    I agree, I get it, and have for years – smaller vehicles are a better way to go. They cost less, get better fuel mileage, are easier to park and have less impact on the environment. I also embrace the concept of personal choice, including the ability for one to make stupid ones. The trick is in how we (attempt to?) change the general American mindset, that bigger is almost always better. Our current spike in gas prices has reopened that discussion and shifted demand, at least for a while, to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. But, having lived through previous gas “crises”, the history is that buying habits slip back into the bad old ways pretty quickly, once prices stabilize. More-stringent government regulations or higher gas taxes are two possible solutions, but both contain significant hurdles to being implemented. Ideally, the best answer will be in just changing mindsets and redirecting demand to “smarter” choices. The best way to do this is through better design – give people better choices, make them “cool” and sales will follow. As the nearly year-long wait to get a smart proves, there IS a market for what they’re selling. Their challenge is that demand is significantly higher than supply, and many potential buyers are simply unwilling or unable to wait 6-12 moths to get a new car . . .

  14. john says:

    Thanks JZ for the entry and comments. I want to leave one last thought about making transportation more enjoyable, more economical, cleaner and healthier for everyone which can be seen even by a birdwatcher.
    – –
    “To me the bicycle is in many ways a more satisfactory invention than the automobile. It is consonant with the independence of man because it works under his own power entirely. There is no combustion of some petroleum product..to set the pedals going. Purely mechanical instruments like watches and bicycles are to be preferred to engines that depend on the purchase of power from foreign sources….The price of power is enslavement.”
    Birdwatching author Louis J Halle ‘Spring in Washington’, 1947/1957

  15. Jason says:

    FWIW no commentary- just a link to a crash test with the smart car versus similar sized compact.



    [slp — note that this video is of the non-US 1st generation model.  The model sold now, the 2nd generation,  was engineered to meet stricter US safety regulations.]  

  16. Jim Zavist says:

    John, I agree bikes are a great alternative, especially after spending many years in Colorado. Unfortunately, the combination of weather, infrastructure and land-use patterns makes cycling, especially for commuters, much more of a challenge around here. Trailnet seems to be working toward some good solutions, but one of the big things I miss from Denver are the Cherry Creek, Platte River and Highline Canal bike paths. They provided essentially bike expressways, complete with grade separations, along existing waterways. I know our waterflow issues are completely different here, but I think we could do something similar, especially along the River Des Peres. Yes, the bike paths get covered when the waterways flood, but 80%-90% of the time, they’re dry and useable and much more attractive, especially for commuters, than paths at street level. My challenge is that first couple of miles – getting over I-44 and/or the railroad tracks that parallel the freeway. Once I’m in Maplewood, there are good on-street options headed north. It’s just that choice between McCausland (under 44) or Arsenal (over the tracks), even on the weekends, that scares even a veteran rider like me.

  17. john says:

    Weather is not the problem as cities with much more severe weather (ie. Chicago, Denver, Seattle, NY, Copenhagen, SanFran, etc.) have bike commuting booming. It is about infrastructure, land use management and advocacy. Denver has over 850 miles of lanes, paths, etc, to facilitate greater use of bikes while Trailnet boasts that we are going to have 75 miles, eventually.
    – –
    When the Metro Extension was designed, a bike path along side was to be built and extended north to Lambert. It would have connected the bike paths in Des Peres so that you could easily ride your bike to work in Clayton and even allowed you to ride to the airport more safely than on Brentwood-Lindbergh Blvds. Trailnet was more interested in spending precious funds for bike paths in Winghaven and large sums for a one-mile elevated path than for making cycling commuter friendly in routes that would have great demand.
    – –
    Many more cases like these can be shown that advocacy matters. StL region has a great opportunities to make the area cycling friendly especially if we had effective advocacy. The Great River Ring is a great idea but but is years away at best. Relative to other BFCs like Portland, Denver, D.C., Seattle, Sacramento, etc., StL is not keeping up.

  18. H says:

    My apology to the writer and his wife for inappropriately and inaccurately implying their lack of ability.

    Editor, please delete my entire post on 11 Jun 2008 at 5:48 pm.

    Thank you.

    Best regards.

  19. samlei72 says:

    i live in london, and i am planning to have a loft conversion at home, i am surfing the internet and i find this site http://www.transworldconstruction.co.uk/Service…, the way i see it, they are consumate pros… any opinion


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