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MOTORNET: Smarter Than Some

Smarter Than Some


SCOOP MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson
Images by Neil Mackenzie - http://www.onlinefotos.com/neil

It takes a bit of getting used to driving a Smart car. People smile at you, sometimes even laugh and it's quite common for small children to point while pulling on their parent’s jumpers to get their attention. I have driven many cars in my time that are attention seeking - convertibles, sports cars and the latest power saloons but nothing compares to the kind of attention that the Smart car gets around the streets of Wellington. Word of caution: paranoid schizophrenics and those who dislike scrutiny should avoid.

Of course, at a tiny 2.5 metres long and resembling something akin to a prototype NASA space bubble, it's hardly surprising the Smart car attracts a fair bit of attention. It's tiny with a very short wheelbase, yet surprisingly tall - which makes it all look quite odd (especially when you put a couple of people on board) yet strangely cute. People like the new Smart because everything about it says ‘fun’ and it clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Not that the Smart is especially new. In fact, anyone who has visited Europe in the last few years is likely to have come across, well, hundreds of them. Over 500,000 have been sold and it would be fair to say they are developing somewhat of a cult following. Given the cost of petrol and the premium on parking spaces in most major European towns, they make very good sense, but can the same be said of here?

DaimlerChrysler - the company that own Smart - certainly think there is a market outside Europe. Only last year, as part of an expansion in the number of worldwide markets from 24 to 31, the Smart started showing up in numbers in Australia. However, to make it worthwhile bringing the Smart to New Zealand, DaimlerChrysler estimated they would need to sell upwards of 1000 units per annum, a figure that was simply too high to be easily attainable. For that reason, the Smart is currently only available in New Zealand as an import from Japan, but that shouldn't necessarily deter new car buyers.

Steve Holloway of Gething’s Motors in Upper Hutt has sold 12 models in the last few months and all to owners in the Wellington area. Most of the cars he imports are virtually new (usually ex-demonstrators) with anywhere between 1000-3000 kilometres on the odometer. The test vehicle loaned to me was a December 03' example which had travelled just over two thousand kilometres. The asking price was $22,900.

A Smart 'Passion,' it came well equipped indeed. Standard air conditioning, a six stacker CD player, alloy wheels, and modern niceties like electric windows, driving and fog lights, and a glass roof. But little omissions tend to annoy. There's no trip meter for example, and the radio holds the car's only clock. Fit and finish is generally good, but overall the feeling is a little overtly plastic. The bright - somebody get me some sunnies! - and funky interior helps to overcome this feeling to some extent, but not entirely and some punters won't take kindly to the exposed metal around the door trims. For those who like the look, but can forgo the extras, there’s the Pulse and Pure – starting from $21,990.

One of the truly neat things about being in the Smart is how high you sit. Who would have thought that a key advantage of driving a Smart would be the ability to eyeball truck drivers? But indeed you can, and it gives the impression of driving a vehicle much bigger – which helps to overcome any sense of being too exposed.

The reason? Passengers are perched on top of the delightful three-cylinder, turbo charged engine (there was simply no place else to put it). At 700cc it may be only small, but its 45kw’s pack quite a punch. But then given that the car weighs only 700kg, its power to weight ratio should be impressive. And while straight out performance figures don't exactly shout 'ball of fire' (try 0-100km/h in just under 15 seconds) around town it feels decidedly nippy and even out on the open road, it doesn't feel slow.

Funnily enough, the Smart's greatest asset could also be its Achilles heel. The six-speed pseudo automatic transmission is a heck of a lot of fun to drive in manual mode. Simply snick the stick to the left and push forwards to shift up, and pull back to shift down. The tachometer on the dash is a cool touch, and the driver can keep an eye on the counter as the little motor sings towards 5500 rpm.

But in auto mode, it's a different story. The gear changes are unusual in that there is a noticeable pause between upshifts - not dissimilar to the old double clutches of the likes of the Fiat Bambino. For the un-initiated, it can be quite disconcerting. After time though, you get used to it and most drivers will tend to ease off the accelerator during gear changes to help the transmission through. It's not technically necessary, but it does make for a smoother driving experience.

The Smart is also pretty good on the handling stakes. But first things first. At low speeds, the steering is somewhat under assisted, but once up and running, it feels crisp and perfectly weighted – good news for those of us who like to drive. The not so good news is that following the ill-fated A-Class ‘Moose test’ incident, there was no way that Mercedes would allow a vehicle of theirs to even get close to rolling over. As such, a lot of the driving fun has been dialled out of the Smart. It’s still a rewarding drive in many respects but if you’re looking for a sub-mini hot hatch, you could be a bit disappointed.

For the rest of us, it’s more a case of what’s not to like? For a start, there are very few cars that will manage such good fuel economy figures. Try (manufacturers claimed) figures of 4.5 litres/100km on the open road and 6.5 litres/100km around the city and some of the lowest emissions around. Not only that, but you can park it practically anywhere. Of course, it won’t suit all lifestyles and probably won’t be suitable for a family of five with two German Shepards. But over a week period of daily use including commuting, I was surprised to find that there wasn’t one instance where I needed something bigger – a pretty rock solid evaluation of the Smart’s merits in my mind. For me, only one question remains. Would I ever be able to get used to the constant attention? As the saying goes, you’re only paranoid if you’re truly not being watched…

Test vehicle suppied by Gething’s Motors of Upper Hutt, Wellington phone 04-528-4624 or email: gethings.motors01@xtra.co.nz

ENDS

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