Friday, July 20, 2007

Test Report: SMART

Smart, in Hauptstrasse Miltenberg, near the old train station.

Smart, outside of town walls of Iphofen.

View through the open roof.

This time I had decided to rent a Smart. I was considering buying one, as this small vehicle would be perfectly right for my daily commute to work. It would offset some of the carbon footprint which I had accumulated in the past years through lots of flying and driving those 1971 Plymouth and 1974 Cadillac cars..., but before I would buy one, I wanted to test drive it, to see how it feels and handles. AVIS had a great deal: a 3-day rental would cost 75 pounds, which is quite reasonable. Since I would travel alone, I would not need much cargo space - I planned to put my suitcase on the passenger seat.

At the AVIS counter, I was offered a brand-new Smart CDI convertible, with just 145 km driven! Exactly the model which I would buy: diesel-powered for higher efficiency, and a convertible roof for letting the sun and air in.

As I approached the car at its space in the rental pick-up area in the Frankfurt underground garage, I noticed that the doors seemed huge - very convenient to enter the car. The trunk behind the seats is small, but I actually could fit my suitcase in. There seems to be enough width for cases of drinks. As I shifted the suitecase in, it seemed that the door of the trunk, which opens from the top under the rear window, was a bit small - I had to twist the suitcase around to fit in. Later I realised that the upper half of the rear - which is part of the convertible roof - could be opened towards the top, hereby increasing the trunk opening to a convenient size.

Sitting in the car, it feels like a real full-size car. Enough leg room, nice space for armrest in the door.

As I want to start the engine, I look for the key lock. Only after a while I realise that it is in the center of the vehicle, next to the gear shift.

I always have trouble with these electric window switches - to me it is not intuituve which way the window opens. Here in the Smart one needs to push for open and pull for close. But since this is a forward push and a backword open, there is no logic in it for translating it into up-down.

The acceleration is reasonably fast - feels quite speedy. And this is the Diesel version which actually has the slowest mobility values - similar to the pace of a 1975s Mercedes 200 D. But the Autobahn, I can easily catch up with the trucks and overtake. Above 120 km/h it feels a bit shaky and susceptible to side winds. I can go up to 140 km/h - the speedometer goes up to 160 km. But I feel safer at around 120 km/h (70 mph), and the evening rush hour traffic does not permit a higher speed anyway.

I was wondering about the set of two buttons in the center, with an iconic picture on them that looked as if they would open the hood. When I finally tried them, a motor began to pull the roof back! That is how the roof opens - very convenient! When driving with open roof, it gets quite loud. But at lower speeds it is ok.

The tiptronic style manual shift works great - who needs the clutch anyway? It takes a bit to get used to, just to tip the gear shifter either forward (for higher gear) of back (for lower gear). A few times I do the opposite of what I intend to shift, but the Smart lives up to its name here: it just does not switch when the result would be an unreasonable RPM of the engine.

If need be, the automatic can be engaged by pushing a button at the side of the shifter: then the gears are switched automatically. For my personal style, the automatic seemed to be too much on the low RPM side, making the engine growl, causing some not so pleasant vibrations, and reducing the possible acceleration. Also, the shifting seeme to cause some jerking. From reports I have read that this was a much larger problem in the previous version of the Smart, and in this version it would be much better. Nevertheless, my old Granada had done a much better job at shifting gears - of course the larger car mass helps in mitigating those gear changes.

Overall, I got the impression that this is a very nice car, and when I have the money for it, I will get one. The mileage during the 520 km I drove on one single tank was 4.7 l / 100km, which is about 50 mpg. Not as exciting as I would have hoped for, but quite reasonable - afterall I drove in mixed traffic, city, and Autobahn. If I would have kept it going always around 80 km/h, the mileage would probably have been better.

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