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Tiny Smart car might be next big thing

A European two-seater's surprising ride and roominess belie its lilliputian appearance.

By PETER COUTURE, Times Staff Writer
Published October 25, 2007

Area drivers who paid a $99 reservation fee to buy a Smart Fortwo got a chance Wednesday to test-drive one of the tiny vehicles, which looked like something out of a Pixar movie.
[Adam Newman | Times]
[Adam Newman | Times]
The Smart Fortwo has a minimalist cockpit. But it is roomier inside than it appears, giving the feel of a larger car.

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So here's how the car lover's dream usually goes:

You're one of the first drivers to slide behind the wheel of a head-turning European two-seater. It's red, of course. And if you're really lucky, you have an attractive passenger in the other seat.

It all came true for me Wednesday - with one tiny difference. Tiny, as in smaller than a sports car. Tiny, as in the much-anticipated Smart Fortwo, the looks-like-it-was-designed-by-Pixar car that's been zipping around European cities since 1998.

Now it has arrived in America, the land of the SUV, where it goes on sale early next year.

On Wednesday, Lokey Motor Co. in Clearwater was the latest stop on the 50-city Street Smart road show, where those who have put down a $99 reservation on a Smart could test-drive one (with a Smart USA team member riding shotgun).

So what's it like driving an 8.8-foot-long car that can fit into an average parking space twice over? Surprisingly, big.

"That's far and away the No. 1 comment," says Nick Fanelli, whose crew is one of four teams that have been taking the car on a national tour since June.

"It's just about the same as a (Mercedes) E-Class," Fanelli says, "and was designed around a person who is 6-5."

It shows. At a fraction taller than 6 feet, I had plenty of head room. The Smart is 5.1 feet wide and 5.1 feet tall. There is enough leg room that I had to slide the seat forward to comfortably reach the pedals. The interior gives off the feel of a larger car. The roomy feel also calms some safety concerns in a car where you might be dwarfed by traffic.

The cockpit, to be kind, is minimalist. Still, the gauges and controls are better-looking than many economy cars.

So how does it drive?

After a short spin on rainy U.S. 19 and around a nearby neighborhood, I found it to be spry for a car with a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine that makes a blushingly modest 71 horsepower. Acceleration isn't immediate, which makes for a careful merger onto U.S. 19, but the Smart gets up to speed well enough for city driving, which it was designed to do. (Top speed is billed at 90, which seems optimistic.) Even without power steering, the car is nimble.

The Smart's five-speed gearbox can be operated in manual mode with steering-wheel paddle shifters or automatic. The automatic mode (you switch by pressing a button on the shift column) provided the one annoyance: jerky gear changes. Fanelli says Smart is fine-tuning the transmission for the 2008 models. The ones provided for testing were European versions with mph stickers pasted over the kilometer-reading speedo. Manual mode provides for a smoother ride.

So who are the likely buyers?

Several of those who lined up in a drizzle Wednesday said their interest was more practical than environmental. "Yeah, the green in my pocket," cracked Christie Drakeley, who splits time between Seattle and St. Petersburg.

The prospective buyers were mostly older, looking for a second car. Many had researched the car on the Internet before plunking down their $99. None seemed to have safety concerns.

Some drivers even gave the Smart style points.

Everett Rothschild, who drove over from San Antonio, Fla., in his new Prius, says he plans on buying a Smart for weekend driving. "That's vanilla," he said, pointing to the Prius. "I want some spumoni."

Smart stuff

Cars: Go on sale early next year as a coupe and cabrio (convertible) with three models expected to range from slightly less than $12,000 to slightly less than $17,000.

Estimated fuel efficiency: 40 miles per gallon.

Safety: A steel cell surrounds the cockpit, which has four air bags. The car also has electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and reinforced doors.

Events: The road show travels to The Pier in St. Petersburg today (11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) before moving to Tampa's Hyde Park Village on Saturday and Sunday ( 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.).

[Last modified October 24, 2007, 23:05:56]

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