AT THE WHEEL REVIEWS: COMPACTS
A New York City Commuter Experience
By Frederick J. Staab CruiseControlRadio.Com
With “The New Normal” of 3 dollar a gallon gas, the car buying public has swung away from big SUV’s with sales down 45% and to become interested in small cars with sales increase of 70%. While this might be new territory of the US, the rest of the world has been thinking small for many years. Micro/City Cars are an actual market segment just like mid and full size for the US.
With that in mind I set out to see if one of these diminutive cars could be used as an every day commuter vehicle. Typically my commute from my suburban home takes place on the Long Island Rail Road or as we like the call it the Snail Road since when it’s congested times it seems to travel about three miles an hour. But still, putting up with the narrow seats and rotund passengers with a bad case of halitosis in your personal space is better than paying tolls, gas and $20 or more a day for parking. Or is it?
To see if a City car would make a good commuter vehicle on the wilds streets of New York I picked up a European edition Smart fortwo at a midtown Manhattan parking garage. Smart had been building the car 8 foot long car ostensibly unchanged since its introduction in 1998 and it is the defacto city cruiser in Europe. In fact Rome has the highest concentrations of Smarts totaling 50,000 and so far a total of 750,000 have hit the streets.
When I arrived parking garage I was told to head for level three, the attendant said “You won’t have a problem finding the Smart it’s the only one we have.” That’s true, but not for long since Smart makes its official U.S. debut in 2008 selling for just under 15 thousand per copy with unofficial mileage estimates in to 50 to 60 MPG range.
For now this metallic blue fortwo with silver accents would be the only one on the mean streets of New York. A quick walk around made me wonder was this car up to the task of being an everyday commuter. It’s just slightly over 8 feet long and five feet high. and the 15” wheels looked really tiny.
On the inside there was plenty of room for two full sized passengers, and a small one foot
deep shelf for your belongings. If you don’t look behind you, the Smart fortwo appears roomy, the windshield and side windows are large and ours came equipped with an optional fixed glass roof that added to the openness.
I quick turn of the center console mounted ignition key and the .7 liter rear mounted
three cylinder engine came to life. Yes that’s .7 liter that nets you about 60 horsepower. Our test car featured the automatic sequential 6-speed transmission which basically is a manual with out a clutch pedal. You can leave it in the “A” automatic mode or you have the choice of shifting with steering wheel mounted paddles or a stubby back and forward shifter on the floor. The transmission takes a bit of getting used to since there is a bit of a delay when the pedal is pressed before you get moving. I coxed our fortwo out on to 44th street and headed for a couple of laps around New York City before pointing its flat face out to suburbia.
Immediately the looks and comments began, mostly smiles or cautious glances at first until I stopped for a light on 9th Avenue. A guy waving a flag for a parking garage says, “Wow I want to get one of those for my son,” I told him he would have to wait until 08, “Well how did you get one?” Let’s just say I have connections!
After a few more thumbs up and friendly smiles, both of which rarely see in NYC, It was time to head for the Mid town tunnel cutting a zip zag pattern through the 5th Avenue rush hour sea or cars and trucks. At a traffic light I ended up parked next to a 320 thousand dollar Maybach sitting with its V12 quietly purring. Its chauffer looked quizzically at my car which was about one quarter of size of his. I told him we are driving cars built by the same company, DaimlerChrysler! “Really?” he said.
Out the tunnel into the battle zone called the Long Island Expressway, We call it the LIE since it is express in name only. At one point in the stop and go I found myself completely surrounded by SUV’s My rear view mirror was filled with the image of a giant Chevrolet logo centered on his grill right above a twisted bumper that may have dealt pain to other smaller cars. Was he coming in for the kill or only getting a closer look? Smart touts the safety of the Smart car with its Tridion Safety Cell and full complement of air bags. They also are proud for the crash test footage of an E Class and fortwo hitting head on. But I was hoping not to have to experience those safety features, that would involve too much paper work and explaining.
Crawling traffic meant lots of open window car to car conversations like the guy in the Lexus with his Foxy Girlfriend taking pictures of the car or was that pictures of me in the car, Hmm. Some one else asking, “Is it legal for you to have that on the road?” Of course the use them on the Autobahn in Germany!
As the LIE opened up it was easy for me to stay with and yes even pass other drivers. For the best performance I shied away from the automatic transmission mode and made steady use of the steering wheel mounted paddles.
After I weekend of making new friends and answering questions about when it was coming to the US it was time to fire up the fortwo and head back to New York City.
The trip included a Bohemian lady in a Toyota Prius eying the Smart and I bet wondering if I was getting better gas mileage than she was. And then there was a bit of excitement when a slow moving Buick created a rolling road block that called for a quick lane change time to hit the throttle and turn all 60 of those horses loose!
After clunking over a steel construction plates on 37thstreet my Smart commuter experience came to an end successfully and no one including the car or people were hurt.
So can a Smart fortwo be used for an everyday commuter car? The answer to that is yes, but the bigger question is will Americans go for a vehicle a small as the fortwo when they can buy more tradition cars for less?
Only time will tell. The new model fourtwo scheduled to appear on US roads in 2008 will be larger. About 3 to 6 inches larger that is, in order to meet the latest crash test requirements.
And by the way, after the fortwo went back in the garage the smiles disappeared from New Yorkers on the street and that Foxy Lady in the Lexus was no where to be found!
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