Jun 30, 2010

Why the SmartCar just isn't smart

Chances are you've seen one, this diminutive, cute, clown-car-sized auto buzzing around town or the inner-city freeways, the "Smart" car.  It looks barely big enough to hold 2 average sized humans - and not much else.

I remember the first time I saw one around 2006, I figured (as many probably did) that it was a european electric import.  In fact, Smart actually paid several people in many large US metro areas to simply drive around the Smart car in place of their regular vehicle, just to start the buzz about it's existence.  And it worked, people all over were gawking at it, asking questions and doing millions of web-searches trying to find out more about it.

Europeans have been used to these uber-small 4-wheelers for decades as several brands have and do make autos of the pint-sized variety for decades, and it wasn't just because fuel costs were higher than here in the US, but simply because most of europe is very tightly compacted, with narrow streets, limited road access in rural areas and overly congested cities with little wriggle-room for the typical US-style sedans to move around.

But the Smart Car isn't the first teeny-weeny-sized auto to hit US shores.  If you're older than 35 you might remember the Renault "Le Car" which was introduced in the late '70's to the US market or even the Yugo.  Neither of which went over very well, mostly due to quality and reliability issues, but also people here just couldn't get done what they thought they needed to with such minimal carrying capacity. It was great for students or that second kick-around car to do errands in but you'd never trust one on the highway - hopefully.

So here we are in 2010 and the Smart Car has not only gone from hard-to-find oddity to being a regular sighting in our daily commute.  But is the Smart Car really all it's cracked up to be, or is it just another example of glossy & cute marketing hype that people have bought into?  Let's break it down and find out:

First, if someone wants a Smart Car simply because it's cool looking, cute or just fun to drive around then you can't argue that "I want one" mentality.  But if you're thinking that it's a "smart" choice because of it's purported economy or low-cost of ownership you might be in for a surprise when you run the numbers.

Compare the mid-level Smart Car model they call the "ForTwo Coupe" to it's closest rival in size and price, the Toyota Yaris.

The ForTwo Coupe price they list on SmartUSA is $14,700, not including tax, title or license fees; even though it is NOT the cheapest model Smart makes it does represent what most americans consider a "base model" with normal amenities that we expect from a new car.  That model has an EPA MPG rating of 33 city / 41 freeway.  It can only accommodate 2 people and just enough room behind the main seats for a few groceries and or smallish luggage such as a few laptop cases or the like.  No back seat at all, it's a 2-person ride, period.

The Yaris 5-Door Hatch lists for $12,605 not including TT&L.  It's EPA rating is 29 city / 36 highway.  It can hold 4 people plus small luggage/groceries in the rear or, the rear seats fold down allowing for more than double the cargo space.  Heck you could easily put a couple Pelican 1650 large cases back there and still have room for extras.

So the right off the bat the Yaris costs less money, can hold double the number of people and has 3 times the cargo capacity of the Smart TwoFor Coupe.  "Ah, but what of the superior gas mileage of the Smart Car?", you say?  OK, let's look at that then:

It's simple math:  According to the government site, www.fueleconomy.gov , the Smart Car will cost you $1241 dollars in fuel annually to drive; the Yaris will cost you $1412 of fuel per year to drive.  That's with a fuel price of $2.73 per gallon and driving an average of 15,000 miles per year and, based on the EPA CITY ratings for both cars.

So let's make this comparison clearer:  The Smart Car TwoFor Coupe costs $2100 more than the Yaris, yet yields only a $171 dollar per-year savings on fuel.  That means you'd have to drive it 12 years to make up that cost difference!  Huh?  Is that what you'd call, "smart"?!?  C'mon now.

Oh but the fun doesn't stop there, you can still only hold 2 people in a Smart Car for that $2100 premium and, you've got virtually no cargo capacity at all.  Not to mention that it's 70-horsepower motor has virtually no get-up-and-go and can't go faster than 85-90 mph.  Granted, you really wouldn't want nor do you need to travel faster than 70mph on the freeway, but that also means you've got no power available to pass, drive up in the mountains or carry heavy loads - such as two of yours truly!  (laughs)

I have a Honda Reflex scooter than can out-accelerate the Smart Car, can hold two people and with the quick-release trunk on the back can hold just about the same amount of luggage and, gets about 60mpg.  All while costing about $11,000 less than the Smart Car.  Granted, it's only got 2 wheels and doesn't have a fully enclosed frame around it like a car does, but just exactly how safe is a Smart Car supposed to be at a 40mph head-on impact with less room in front of the driver than a Mini Cooper?

Exactly what is "smart" about the Smart Car?  From my perspective, absolutely nothing.  It's an over-priced motorcycle on 4 wheels.

If you want something that's small, has great fuel economy and can actually do more than a motorcycle on 4 wheels then either a Toyota Yaris or better still, a Honda Fit should be in your sights.  But a Smart Car?  I'd call that a stupid purchase, not a smart one.

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