environment, San Francisco

Smart Car, Dumb Car?


This is a Smart fortwo (for two people) convertible. I haven’t been able to figure out which model it is, exactly, or if it’s a custom-built; but if you want to try to weave and wend your way through the Smart car web site to figure it out, go right ahead.

It looks like you can now get Smart cars in America. They’re listed by the EPA as getting 40 mpg, according to a Baltimore Sun article published yesterday on John Robinson, a University of Maryland professor who owns three (two are stuck in storage in California). Just as interesting as the article’s details on the car are the glimpses of Robinson, a “top expert on time usage,” who tells reporter Joe Burris, “The whole point of doing this is to confront some of the environmental issues that come up in ordinary automobiles. . . About 90 percent of trips are taken alone. Why are we carrying around all these back seats in our cars?”

Of course, the environmental issue has been a thorn in the side of those who want to bring smart cars into the United States, en masse. The most efficient Smart cars run on diesel, getting upwards of 70 mpg. Smart cars showed up in Canada two years, ago, according to an MSNBC report by Miguel Llanos, and run around on common rail diesel, which is a bit cleaner-burning than regular diesel. To meet American emissions requirements, the cars have to be retrofit (even more so in California, which has stricter emissions standards than the federal EPA). This is, I surmise, is why Robinson’s two cars in California aren’t going anywhere–he had them shipped in from Canada, rather than buying them from ZAP, the American distributor who does the retrofitting.

That MSNBC article, published in 2004, said Smart car SUVs (the formore) would be available in the US in the third quarter of 2006. Maybe. It sounds as if the formore was supposed to be available here before the fortwo, but reality appears to have turned out the other way round. The implication being manufacturers felt Americans would be put off by the original Smart car’s size, so they would push the larger version on a populace that believes safety varies directly with vehicle size. The Smart car people keep comparing the car to a nut (“Officials at Smart USA liken it to a nut protected by a hard shell,” writes Burris). And I suppose bouncing around in a brightly colored acorn, I wouldn’t stand much of a chance against an Expedition. (“Acorn” is probably inaccurate; “walnut” seems to be the analagous nut of choice.)

But maybe we could use the smarter Smart SUV. Goodness knows, there are enough dumb ones on the road. Getting something like 12 miles per gallon, if you’re lucky, and yet unable to make it through the streets of San Francisco? Doesn’t sound like much of a deal to me.

There’s a car that’s all back seat.

And while we’re on the subject of cars, I ought to snap a photo of the S-Cargo in my neighborhood. I noticed it a few months ago, the first time I’d ever seen one of these 1991 Nissans, a rarity since only 12,000 were produced. The one I know is rather more tastefully (or boringly) turned out than that pictured below. If only I could find a car that elicits the kinds of reactions that the S-Cargo gets in Japan.


(My thanks to Sharon Neville for the photo of the Smart car, shot during her trip through central Europe. Thanks to Adrian Cotter for pointing me to the beached stretch SUV, shot by Tien Chiu and published on the Potrero Hill neighborhood blog.)

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6 thoughts on “Smart Car, Dumb Car?

  1. aj gilbertson says:

    The Smart Cars are already available in the US from ZAP http://www.zapworld.com ZP (NYSE). A California based company who is also planning on brining a Brazilian made car to the US, the Obvio! 828, that is a hybrid that can run on any combination of ethanol and gas. Zap is also the only car company who is selling a Chinese manufactured car in the US the 100% electric Xebra city car.

  2. Tim Lesle says:

    Thanks, AJ. I hadn’t realized Zap was offering all these other models. I look forward to seeing how all that works out. There’s considerable interest in the Smart car these days (it only took a few years)–I’m especially curious about how the Obvio will be received.

  3. Smart_AJ says:

    the obvio should be recieved with open arms. It offers the benefits that ethanol fuel will one day be able to offer this country while still being able to function off of strictly gasoline if necessary. It will be an ethanol vehicle that you can buy and not have to worry about whether you are traveling in an area that has E85, becuase if there isnt any you can just use gas. Not to mention it is a nice looking car. Obvio are big supporters of Rat Fink and vis versus so it is a really cool design. There are videos of it driving on the Zap website http://www.zapworld.com

  4. Jack H. says:

    My wife looked at “the smart car” and then priced it.

    Although I thought the car wasn’t bad looking, she discovered its a bit pricy given the size. It could be really useful locally, but NOT on moderate or long road trips. For its size, its too expensive. I’d rather just go with a Honda Civic, pay a little more, and be able to take at least moderate length trips. Hondas have a track record, too, of dependability. I think the “smart car” has been around in Europe for ten years, but I don’t know about its record of repair.

  5. Thanks, Jack, for the note. Yeah, it’s hard to know what to make of this. I see these little Smart Cars all over the place here in San Francisco. My girlfriend was excited when she first heard they’d be coming to America after having seen them in Europe.

    But this March she was in a car accident. It was her Corolla versus a new Escalade that ran a red light—place your bets on how that turned out. I can’t imagine a little Smart Car would have done much better than her Toyota, which was totaled. She did end up getting a little Civic to replace it.

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