By on December 9, 2001

Simple Darwinism could reduce the number of America's fashion-conscious tree huggers.

Speed matters. So does size. A Lamborghini Murcielago can crest 200mph on an autobahn, but it’s slower than a pair of roller skates down a busy city street. Enter Mercedes’ chic new SMART car. It’s tiny– small enough to dart through any gap wider than an NFL lineman. It’s quick– well, “nippy”. It uses less fuel than a John Deere lawn mower. In fact, the SMART should be an urban driver’s dream come true. It isn’t.

Oh, but don’t you wish it was? It’s so cute! The SMART has all the charm of a baby animal: tiny body, big head and huge, doleful eyes. Awwww. Look! The radiator is smiling at you! Unlike the much-hyped MINI, the SMART’s Pokemon-morphed-with-a-golf-cart design both startles and captivates. You don’t want to buy the SMART so much as take it home and cook it a hot meal.

Zero to sixty in over 16 seconds!  (I was jogging next to the car when I took the picture.)Inside, the SMART is even more endearing. The car offers a range of “big car” toys: central locking, air conditioning, sunroof, sat nav, CD player and more. All the details—from the pizza slice door handles to the cup holder/ashtray— are fresh without being pretentious. Like a “real” Merc, all the controls work, and work well. The wipers wipe. The ventilation ventilates. The more time you spend in the car, the more you understand why SMART means both stylish and intelligent.

Funky touches like the twin periscopes surfacing from the dash (clock and rev counter) will get all the press, but the ergonomics deserve the real attention. The cabin is mounted above the engine (where else could they put it?), placing you virtually level with SUV drivers. This lofty driving position combined with an epic windscreen and large side windows delivers a panoramic view. Sitting behind the wheel, nestling into the heated seats, you’d swear you were driving an MPV.

If you value style, comfort and political correctness above all, stop here. Note that Daimler-Chrysler plans to import the SMART into the US sometime in the next year or so, and head for the brand’s suitably trendy website. Now, for those of you who value driving pleasure more than PC bragging rights, hold on. It’s gonna get rough.

To thrive in its natural environment, a city car needs quick and accurate steering, to boldly go where no SUV has gone before. Unfortunately, the SMART’s helm is severely under-assisted at lower speeds; changing direction from a standstill requires a manly “heave-ho”. Even worse, you have no idea how far you’ve turned the wheels until you set off– at which point you can easily find yourself heading towards the bumper of something large and unyielding. Once you get going, the steering is crisp and perfectly weighted. Which is just as well. Past 40mph, the slab-sided city car is more likely to be blown off course than a 17th century sailing ship.

   A great drive-- until you have to change gears, turn or face a cross windThe only thing more challenging than holding the SMART on a steady bearing is changing speed. Mercedes can rightly claim to build some of the world’s best automatic transmissions. Now they can claim to build the world’s worst. The SMART’s autobox doesn’t “slur” its changes. It stops, thinks about it, thinks about it some more, then gives you the next gear. It’s the perfect car for the Japanese; the sudden loss of momentum forces you to bow between gears.

Floor it– the usual method for rousing a Mercedes engine– and it’s not so much “kick down” as “cut out”. At the exact moment you ask for/need a little extra oomph, the handbag-sized engine goes into a second-long sulk. Switching off the auto leaves you with a sequential-style shift. The faux manual transmission option shortens the changing times, but only slightly. Personally engaging the gears accentuates the “light the fuse and wait” gear changes. A sporting driver will find the suspense… unbearable.

The SMART’s handling is also a lot less than excellent. While the SMART is not a sports car, even a bumper car is fast enough to challenge the gods of handling. In this case, the gods win. Mercedes modified the SMART’s suspension after the A-Class “elk test” debacle, eliminating any possibility of tipping over in a corner. At the same time, the SMART’s TRUST-PLUS stability system denies drivers the slightest chance of what we enthusiasts call “fun”. AND it’s hard riding.

The SMART could have had it all: style, comfort and speed. MB’s ‘ultimate city car’ is let down by lousy steering, an uncooperative gearbox, a dim-witted suspension and a zero-to-sixty time north of 15 seconds. Of course, this focus on the car’s dynamic abilities is beside the point. There’s an entire rainforest of eco warriors ready to remind me that the SMART is not about performance or driving pleasure. It’s about conserving our dwindling resources, 40+ miles per gallon and 85% recyclability. Ain’t THAT the truth.

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