SAN JOSE, Calif., - When gasoline prices soared, Americans wanted gas sipping cars. Domestic manufacturers didn't have them, the Japanese did and the rest is history.
We may see a repeat of that equation as gasoline prices rise. But this time the small fuel sipping car comes from Europe - Germany to be specific by way of France.
In this case, we're talking about the smart fortwo. It holds two passengers and not much else. This car is a two-door hatchback with cargo space for a couple of pieces of small soft luggage or small packages, the kind of stuff you pick up on a Saturday morning.
The smart is powered by an inline one-liter three cylinder engine that makes 70 horsepower and 68 pounds-feet of torque. It's mated to a five-speed manual automatic that can change gears automatically or of course be manually shifted.
We didn't like this gearbox. The shifts were rather abrupt, and lengthy in terms of the time it took to get from one gear to the other. At some point, we wish smart would give customers the choice of an automatic or a manual transmission. That was our only quibble.
Our smart was 106 inches long (that's not much), weighed 1,808 lbs (that's not much either) and it had a turning radius of 28.7 ft. We made a U-turn using two lanes with room to spare. The smart is so small you could drive it in your house.
Blistering speed is not one of the smart's attributes. It accelerates from 0-60 mph in 12.8 seconds and has a maximum speed of 90 mph. That sounds slow but how many times do you need to get to 60 mph as fast as you can from a standing start? And how many times do you need to go faster than 80 mph?
What's more, using EPA guidelines for 2008, smart gets 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg. We spent a few hours driving the car from San Francisco south to Silicon Valley then to Palo Alto and then here and never saw the gas gauge move.
Our smart handled the freeways here relatively well. The car was pretty steady on the road but we noticed that we were constantly adjusting our steering to keep it on track. We don't know whether it was cased by the short wheelbase, the wind or the fact that we were not used to driving a vehicle that small.
Acceleration was pretty good. In fact, we never found ourselves in trouble because of a lack of oomph. The car was very spacious. We had plenty of leg room. Head room was great because the smart was 60 inches tall but we could have stood a bit more width. We knocked elbows with our driving partner a couple of times.
Still, we were impressed. The smart looks like it would be swallowed on American roads. But we never got the feeling of being overwhelmed by bigger vehicles. However, let's not get it twisted. The smart is a commuter car. It has a 10 gallon gas tank including reserve and that's the way it will be marketed.
There are two versions of the smart: a couple and a convertible. The coupe comes with a clear roof and sunscreen. The convertible has a fully automatic top and glass rear window. The smart can be equipped with a premium audio system that includes 6-disc CD changers, MP3 capability, and an auxiliary jack.
Our test car had power windows, air condition, antilock brakes, heated side mirrors, front and side airbags. However, smart wants to keep the car simple and affordable. A navigation system is a dealer installed option.
When the smart fortwo goes on sale in January, the base price will be $11,590.