Wising Up

Why I Bought the Smart Car

Some call it a “breadbox on wheels,” but my wife, Sue, has been in love with the cute little bug since admiring it spinning around the streets of Paris years ago.

It’s only a foot longer than a golf cart, three feet shorter than a Mini Cooper, it’s taking the U.S. by storm – it’s the Smart car. And if it’s good enough for Ty Warner it’s good enough for us.

We ordered one as soon as the Mercedes Benz-made buggies hit the market in Santa Barbara this spring, and we took delivery of the bright yellow-and-black beauty on Thursday, June 5. Sue dubbed it “Bumblebee.”

Barney in his brand new Smart car.
Click to enlarge photo

Sue De Lapa

Barney in his brand new Smart car.

Why would someone buy a stubby car that only fits two people and looks like something you wouldn’t dare take on the freeway?

Well, for starters, most drivers can expect to get 36 to 46 miles per gallon, according to the manual. It takes premium gas, though. A woman I met at the Santa Barbara Auto Group showroom said her son managed 47 mpg on a roundtrip to L.A. The three-cylinder, 70-horsepower Smart car has a top speed of 90 miles an hour; the limit is electronically set.

It’s great for buzzing around town and squeezing into tight parking spots everywhere—street, driveway, garage. As for safety, the French-made vehicle passed U.S. tests with flying colors.

And it’s cheap. Our model, the stripped-down Pure, starts at about $11,500, but comes without radio, air conditioning, or power windows. For those, you have to jump up to the Passion Coup, starting at around $13,500 or the $16,590 Passion Cabriolet convertible, the price depending on the options. (Our Pure came with air conditioning, a $600 add-on.)

It’s fun to drive. Although some critics complain that the auto-manual transmission is “herky-jerky,” we noticed no such thing. There’s plenty of space in that two-seat compartment. “You feel like you’re driving a Mercedes,” that same woman customer in the showroom gushed.

Cons? Well, with only two seats, Sue and I can’t fit in her mother, Vivian. For that, we have our 2008 Honda Fit, a four-door, gas-sipping (not guzzling) wagon that gets around 35 mph in town and 40 on the road.

The Smart car is not for a soccer mom who needs to lug the team around. One guy sneered that for the cost of a Smart, you could buy an equally fuel-efficient car that actually has a back seat. Not so. According to the new Consumers Report, nothing can touch the Pure in terms of price-fuel efficiency ratio, although the $15,765 Fit comes closer than anything else. (The Toyota Yaris, though it looked efficient, was too low-rated to even consider.)

People smile and wave. Others make jokes. “Where’s the wind-up key?” “Where are the pedals?” It seems to make them happy.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column for Thursdays.

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