or, How I Came to Own a smartCar for those of you who don’t know, i (used to!) own a 1997 Nissan Altima. a) it was big, b) it was ugly, c) it was very loud, that latter mostly due to its muffler being made of holes held together with rust. my father wired it back together at one point, but by the time i traded it in, even that was no longer sufficient to qualify it as a muffler. people at work joked that they could tell when i was about to arrive because they could hear my car coming down the street… they weren’t actually joking… (-_-) then there was the battery. i got the car in 2007. i had to get a new battery in 2009. i thought, okay, 2 years, and who knows what state it was in when i bought it. then i had to get another one in 2010, 15 months later. well, we replaced the alternator then, too, so maybe the alternator had gone bad. then i missed work this past tuesday because my battery died on me again. 2 and a half years since the last one, and the thing had been half-stalling out at every stop light in the intervening months. i had to press on the gas while pressing on the brake, just so i didn’t stall out. yeah. when the battery died this time, my father and i opened the hood to find almost as must corrosion as battery. after we brushed that away, we discovered that we couldn’t get the positive terminal lead thing off, thanks to said corrosion, which had all but welded the lead to the terminal. plus, the hex screw was so rounded that the wrenches couldn’t hold on to it. we eventually had to pry the thing off with a screwdriver. having had so much trouble removing it, the positive lead then refused to sit properly when we got the new battery in. with the hex screw like that, there wasn’t much we could do except push the lead on there and hope it stayed. (nb: yes, i know, you can get replacements, but unexpected battery purchases do not lend themselves to other unexpected car repair purchases, even cheap(er) ones.) so the list of things wrong with the altima grew: tail lights that didn’t turn off unless you removed the fuse (hence the presence of a pair of rusty pliers in my car), muffler that didn’t muffle, tires that liked to go flat at a moment’s notice thanks to a slight dent in my wheel rim (left over from a wheel vs curb battle that my car lost), and now, a battery lead that didn’t stay in place. whenever i wanted to start my car, i had to open the hood, reseat the terminal, and then start it up. and sometimes even then, it didn’t want to start. i did a lot of terminal wiggling that week. (>.>) my mother, my father, myself, pretty much everyone by this point was getting concerned for my safety, and urging me to obtain a new vehicle forthwith. it turned out that the CarMax (a used car place) near my house had a smartCar on the lot that my mother and sister had seen, so i called them up, and lo and behold it was still available. so i went over there on a lovely saturday afternoon, and to cut a long story slightly less long, i drove off the lot with a shiny new car! yay! (as an aside, the dude who sold me the thing was like, “it’s an altima you’re trading in?” and i was like, “what’s left of one, yeah.” he was like, “eheheh.” and then his dude appraised my car. …he was like, “is there any safety reason why someone should not buy this car?” i was like, “eheheh- i plead the fifth.” …the little report that came back was like, “engine: does not run properly.” i was like, “uh, nothing does on that car.” but they still gave me $500 for it, which was about $499 more than i thought i might get, so that was all to the good in the end.) so i thought i might review the darling thing right here, for your very much review fullfillment… let’s start with the outside. CUTE! super cute. tiny. miniscule. it’s basically the front seats of a car, plus a “trunk area.” it doesn’t really qualify as a full trunk, although my mother and i did fit groceries for 6 adults in there. the colored parts are actually plastic body panels, which are resistant to denting, and are replaceable, so if you scratch one up, or if you decide you’d like a yellow car for a while instead of a red one, you can go for it. full sets of body panels go for about $1200, and you need special tools to change them, so it’s not something you can just pop in and out, but if you can only find one color in your neighborhood, or if you want a custom color, you can get it that way. you can also get custom graphics and vinyls and stuff printed for that extra fancy touch. the headlights are cute, the back tail lights are cute (and functional! dude!), the headlights themselves are actually super bright, and are aimed very thoughtfully. the area they light up seems quite large to me when i’m just driving along, but when i pull up behind people, my lights are never shining right in their face. the seem to be aimed so that they come up just below the back windshield on most modern cars. since i work second shift, it’s pitch black half the year for my commute home, so i really appreciate that feature. the smart car also has a tridion frame, the black part on mine, but you can also get it in silver, and you can also get graphics to apply there if you don’t like black or silver. the frame is, of course, a safety moment, more than a decorative one, but that doesn’t prevent it from looking good. i watched a YouTube where they crashed the smart car into a concrete barrier at 70 mph, and the frame was hardly dented. where the frame stopped, the car didn’t exist any more, but the frame itself was perfectly intact.
which makes this a great time to talk about safety! if you watched the video above, you saw that the smart car fairs about as well as any other small car. the Geo Metro, the old Dodge Neons, the Honda Civics, the Honda Fit, all of the small, (sub)compact cars on the market (at least all of the ones that came out about circa 2008, which is when my smart car came out) have the same problem: THEY’RE TINY. when you crash half a car into concrete, you’re going to have some problems. imagine that. in the smart’s defense, it’s been engineered to take advantage of other cars’ crumple zones. the frame will protect you from slower impacts, but you’re more likely to survive a crash with another car, simply because of the way this car’s engineered, not to mention the way physics works. also in the smart’s defense, if you watch the video through, you see that the car hits the barrier at an angle, on the driver’s side corner. the driver’s compartment has a fair amount of intrusion, but the passenger side isn’t too bad, considering. it’s got some debris, but the door’s fine, the footwell is fine. the passenger would be bruised and shaken, but might be able to walk away from that crash, even at 70 mph. the lesson here? if you go out of control, try to crash on the passenger side. … unless you’ve got a passenger, in which case, try to crash into something with crumple zones… i suppose the point with regards to safety is this: the smart car is no more or less safe than other tiny cars. the smart did receive four star or better crash ratings in industry-standard crash tests (from the insurance institute for highway safety and the national highway traffic safety administration, links and a consumer reports summary article can be found here: http://news.consumerreports.org/cars/2008/05/smart-crashtest.html) and the thing has 14 air bags and a steering wheel that retracts in the event of a crash so it doesn’t go into your rib cage, so they’ve pretty much done everything they can to make the car as safe as possible. if you’re looking at compacts and sub-compacts, this car is no more or less safe than the other cars you’re looking at. and now we move on to where you’ll be spending most of your time, THE INTERIOR! depending on your trim level of course, you may have one or more of the following: * bucket seats (i hate buckets seats, but i suppose these aren’t horrible. you’re not gonna wanna drive cross country in these things, but hopefully you didn’t buy this car to go cross country in… -1 point.) * heated seats (i don’t have these, but my mother’s Honda CR-V does, and i find that i don’t like them. +1) * fabric trim on doors and dash (mine’s black, i hear you can get other colors on newer models, i guess i don’t really care, but it’s just something to make your car a little special. no points either direction.) * ash tray and 6 CD holder (i do have this, it gets a little rattle-y in the super cold Ohio winters, since it’s just plastic. i don’t really use it, since i’ve got an MP3 player. i ended up removing them both (a super easy process! they just snap out!) but if you have CDs, it’s going to be super convenient for you. no points.) * in-dash storage (there are two cubbies on either side of the steering column, one of which is quite large, and the glove box, which can be locked, is a nice size, too. +1) * fancy stereo (i have what i believe to be the basic basic model stereo. it sounds good, not amazing, but i haven’t messed with anything yet. it doesn’t have any full-on equalizer settings, but you can adjust the treble and bass, along with balance and fade settings, so it’s just about standard in that regard. of course it has AM/FM stereo, with 6 preset buttons, and a CD player. since the cabin’s so small, you don’t need much power to get good sound, but the volume maxes out at 25. for the normal radio and for CDs, that’s plenty loud, but for the AUX in, it doesn’t quite go where i’d like it to. i find that a lot of AUX in moments don’t go very loud, relying instead on the AUX device to provide the volume, which is super annoying. i shouldn’t have to turn up my mp3 player just because you didn’t want to power your AUX in port properly. anyhow, the speakers are okay, maybe a little underpowered, and if you’re an audiophile, these definitely aren’t going to live up to your standards. but if you’re a normal person, it’ll be fine. also, even this basic edition does come with an auxiliary input jack, and although that jack is located in the glove box (super odd), it works fine with my mp3 player. all in all, this is also +1) * tachometer and analog clock (sticking up like two little bug eyes on the dash. super cute. these are nicely lit, large enough to see easily, and the tachometer is useful for when you accidentally put yourself in manual mode (more on the transmission later) and miss the clues on the dash display, and it will help you recognize what’s going on when your car changes gears, but if you never go out of automated mode, it’ll be a little pointless for you. as for the analog clock, i strongly prefer analog clocks, so i was happy to see that there, but there is a digital clock on the dash display, so again, you may find it pointless. +1, ymmv) * air conditioning system (right below the tacho/clock. this is on the fugly side, but it does it’s job. you select a temp with the right-hand lever and the fan speed with the left-hand lever. it heats up in alright time, not super quick, but considering the tiny engine it’s got to work off of, that’s not surprising. since i came from a car w/ precisely zero air conditioning, i consider it a win, but objectively, it’s probably “meh,” at best. 0) * speedometer and dash display (i like this thing. the speedometer is right where it should be, behind the steering wheel, unlike certain other compact cars (i’m looking at YOU, toyota yaris!), it’s well lit, with large numbers. on either side of the speedometer are black arches, which is where your warning lights will come on. i haven’t had a chance to see many of those in action, of course, but they all light up when you start up the car, and they seem normal. i didn’t understand a couple of them at first, but that is what they made manuals for. resetting the digital clock is a little odd, but again, RTFM. it does have an indicator light for maintenance, which i haven’t seen in action yet, but it’s bound to be useful for me, since i’m very bad at remembering to get oil changes. +1) * fancy buttons (below the stereo is where you’ll find most of your fancy buttons. the switches for the automatic windows are on the door, but everything else, including the door locks, are here below the stereo. from left to right: blank space where the seat heating button would be were i to own that | fog lamps | a blank space for some other fancy feature i haven’t got | lock the doors | hazard lights | unlock the doors | arm security system (more on that later) | tire pressure monitoring system (more on that later) | and lastly, blank space for passenger seat-heating, were i to own that feature. these are all nice and clicky, the lock buttons are kind of pointless, because you’ve got your fob with you at all times (the fob IS the key) but i guess if your fob goes out, you can use that. the car alarm button is similar. if you haven’t got your fob, or if you give someone your valet key, they can use that to set the alarm. you press the button and then leave the cabin w/in x amount of time (i think it’s 12 seconds?) and voila the alarm’s set. as a side note, when your fob battery’s about to die, the car flashes its lights at you a lot more than normal when you lock the doors, and it’s still rated for 100 button presses after that, so you’ll know in plenty of time to get a new battery. it’s just a regular watch battery, CR 2016, in case you’re wondering.) yeah, i think that’s about it for the dash, so let’s go back and talk about some of your car’s fancy features. the transmission: this is the big one that most (all?) of the reviews complain about, and, unfortunately, rightly so, although perhaps it’s not as bad as people make out. the difference is this. this car is not an automatic in the normal sense. that is to say, the transmission is not the standard automatic that you find in any other car. it’s a sort of mix between manual and automatic. it’s officially called an “automated manual,” which is to say, it’s a manual car, a stick shift, with automated shifting. “but,” you say, “isn’t that what any automatic is?” well, not exactly. i don’t know all the details, but my impression is that a regular automatic has a different way of shifting, and a different way of engaging the clutch when it changes gears so that your car doesn’t lose forward momentum while you’re changing gears. the smart’s system doesn’t have that, it just eases up on the gas as its method of engaging the clutch, so while you’re changing gears, your car is subject to the laws of physics, i.e. your car slows down. this is especially noticeable between first and second gears, although it gets better as you get into higher gears, and it vastly improves if you accelerate at a slower rate. so if you put the pedal to the floor, you’re going to feel every gear change quite seriously. if you gently press the pedal down and accelerate at a slower rate, you’re not going to notice much of a change at all. although firstly, accelerating at a slower rate is better for your car and your gas mileage, the truth is that secondly, accelerating slowly is not how most people drive, myself included. i got used to the little jerk between first and second pretty much right away, but you’re just not going to be able to do any jack rabbit starts in this car. it’s especially annoying when turning corners after stop lights, because it likes to change gears right in the middle of the intersection. i notice a lot of people changing lanes to get around me in the first couple of dozen yards, only to be passed by me later on down the road. it’s definitely more tortoise than hare. the engine is only 1 liter, 3 cylinders, and even as small as the car is, the engine feels a little underpowered, maybe because of the way the transmission engages, so if you’re looking for something to zip in and out of traffic like a bicycle messenger in, this ain’t it. you can operate the car in full manual mode and drive it like you would any other stick shift/manual car, and although i don’t know how to drive a manual, my father does. during his drive around the block, which he did in manual mode, i found the ride much smoother, so i think i’m going to have to learn his mysterious stick shifting ways. all that said, i don’t have any major problem with the smart setup, because 90% of my commute is highways, so i don’t do much stopping/starting. i would recommend a longer than normal test drive to be sure that you can live with this engine. on the plus side, this car is maneuverable. it can turn almost literally on a dime. also, i’ve seen some videos say it felt sluggish, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. of course, my last car was a boat, so perhaps that’s relative. i will say, it’s not as zippy as my 1997 Toyota Tercel was when i first bought that, but i did last own that car 8 years ago, so maybe memory is also relative. (^_^) for the record, i do go on the highway with it. my commute to work is about 15~20 minutes either way, 90% highway. i get up to about 80 with no problem, and despite what i’ve read on the internets, i do not feel particularly vulnerable in it. no more than i did in the Tercel, certainly. it’s not an SUV, so of course if you pull up alongside a semi, you’re gonna feel some push back, but not much more than i do in my sister’s 2005 Toyota Echo (the precursor to the Yaris). Again, it’s a tiny car, so it’s going to react like a tiny car. stop expecting it to behave like a full size sedan. i should mention that i live in Ohio, where we have real winters, and real windy days, and the wind has actually been more of a concern for me than the snow/ice. which brings us to fuel economy. everybody wants to know, it must get good gas mileage! well, yes, as a point of fact, it does. nothing amazing, not like 100 mpg, but a solid 38 mpg on the highway. i’ve had the car for 45 days now and i’ve filled up thrice. that’s right. (^_^) i go about 10 days between fillups, and i went 19 days on this last one. if i only drive to work and back, w/ no driving on the weekends, i should be able to go ~20 days between fillups. it has an 8.9 gallon tank and the manual says it has a 1.3 gal reserve tank, although i haven’t been bold enough to encounter that yet. the gas light goes on when you have 1 gal left, and the dash display changes. where it used to list your trip OD, it now says “1.0 gals.” if you keep driving, it keeps track of how much gas you have left. “0.9 gals” “0.8 gals” etc. after the gas light goes on, i can get to work and back ~3.5 times. (^_^) this is a definite win. let’s see, what’s next? aaah, tires. they’re tiny 15″ things, nothing special. you can buy aftermarket upgrades. i am happy to have hub caps again. *poor nissan.* the smart has a tire pressure monitoring system to tell you when one (or more~) of your tires is going flat. this is vitally important, as it does not have a spare. (seriously, where would they have put it?) what it has instead is this monitoring system and a tire repair kit under the passenger side dashboard. if you get a puncture, you can use the kit to seal and reinflate your tire, and that will get you to the nearest dealership/garage/whatever, so you can get a new tire. the monitoring system should prevent blow outs, so either way, you’re not going to be left out by the side of the road with no way to get home. i guess this is a good example of the feeling i get from the entire car. it’s not what you expect, but it’s got innovative ways to get the job done. which brings us to the security system. the passenger side doesn’t actually have a key lock. the driver’s side does, but it’s got a stopper in it you’d have to pull out before you could use it. they obviously intend you to use the fob. which is fine, the fob is attached physically to the key, so you can’t start your car w/out it (unless you have the valet key, obviously). this does make the key huge, but most modern keys are using this design now. i’m not fond of it, but it seems to be standard these days. my mother’s CR-V key, for instance, isn’t that much smaller. if you haven’t got your main key, you can still unlock the driver’s door, you can still start the car of course, and you can still use the security system, using the button on the dash, so if more than one person in your household will be driving the car, it’s not that big of a deal, but i do feel like the car’s designed more for a one-driver-per-car type of household. i will say the security system is kind of loud. the little beeps are cute, but i feel like everyone on my block knows when i leave and when i get home now. i guess it’s better to have a loud security system than a soft one, but they could have turned it down just a notch. and so there we go. outside of the transmission, there’s really not much to dislike here. despite appearances, there’s plenty of room in the trunk for hauling your bags to the airport and back (you can probably fit a full sized suitcase + toiletry bag + carry on and the same for a spouse/mate/roomie/significant other without too much trouble), you can do your weekend errands in it definitely. you’re not going to fit a loveseat in here, probably not even a good sized ottoman, but hopefully that’s obvious from just looking at it. frankly, i’m not buying furniture in this thing. i’m not hauling dirt, or gravel or whatever. i hardly ever exit the city, and then only to drive to another city, and i don’t take anyone with me on my drive to work, so i don’t need much more than the front seats of a car. it’s designed to be a commuter car, or maybe a primary car for young, childless city dwellers. it’s perfect for me, and i’m very happy with it, but i also knew what i was going for and what i was going to get out of it. this car isn’t going to be applicable to everyone’s situation, but if it is applicable to yours, i definitely recommend it. i will say that when the smarts first came out, they were way overpriced. they were, what, $20k back in 2008? yeah, that was too much. but now, 4~5 years later, and i got mine used for just over $10k, and i feel like that was just about right. so in the end, do your research and know what you’re getting into, but if this size car is something you’re interested in, take a smart for a spin. (^_^) .