IS AMERICA READY TO GET SMART?
By McKenzie Funk
First published in 
Popular Science, May 2007

DETROIT TO MARSHALL, MICHIGAN

2.21 gallons, $5.83, 48 miles per gallon

"How about y'all get in the back. Just put you and your entire car in the back, and I'll take you wherever you want to go." --Chevy Tahoe driver in downtown Detroit

The Rouge, Henry Ford's 2,000-acre icon of American industry, a complex of steel furnaces and railroad tracks and twisting assembly lines just outside Detroit, makes trucks. It didn't always make trucks. Starting in 1917, it made antisubmarine boats, then it made tractors, and then it made cars: Model A's, V8s, Thunderbirds and four hallowed generations of Mustangs. In the 1930s it was the largest auto plant in the world, toured by queens, presidents and rival barons, and what it built, it built from scratch. It had 100,000 employees in 93 buildings who produced 1,500 tons of iron and 500 tons of glass a day. A hunk of raw iron became a vehicle in 72 hours. The Rouge spit out a new car every 49 seconds.

But today the modernized Rouge spits out only trucks--red F-150s, white F-150s, black F-150s--enough Ford trucks in three days to stretch bumper-to-bumper to downtown Detroit, nine miles away. Enough trucks in five months to stretch bumper-to-bumper to New York City. Enough trucks to meet what for so long has seemed an insatiable demand for the full-size, 200-plus-horsepower pickup, America's bestselling vehicle for 25 straight years and best-selling truck of all time. Enough trucks to make me and my girlfriend, Jenny, look like heretics when we pull into the Rouge-tour parking lot. No, worse than heretics--like Europeans.

The car we're driving is the Smart car, an eight-foot-long product of France that gets upward of 40 miles per gallon to the F-150's 15 mpg. It has two seats and three cylinders and a 0.7-liter, 61-horsepower engine. It is shorter than a golf cart. It can park headfirst in a parallel spot. When we drive it, heads turn and cameraphones get pulled out, and other drivers, trying to figure out what it is, tailgate us so closely that we worry about accidents. Some signal us to roll down our window as we're going 75 on the freeway.

Sold in Europe for nearly a decade--770,000 cars in 36 countries and counting--the Smart is coming to U.S. shores in the most talked-about launch of 2008. Already a 44-city road show is kicking off. Drivers from New York to Miami to Seattle to Austin, Texas, will be able to see the Smart, sit in it, and take it for a spin. A Web reservation system is up and running. Go to smartusa.com, pay a refundable $99, and you're on the list to get one of the first American Smarts to roll off the line.

Jenny and I got our Smart--a gray-market version imported from Europe and made street-legal here--the old-fashioned way: We rented it from a Budget franchise in the Chicago suburbs. We brought it to Detroit to begin a makeshift road show of our own, a 1,500-mile jaunt through the heartland in which we try to answer a simple question: Is America ready to embrace such an un-American ride?

Inside the Rouge, we join a tour with a pair who are obviously spies from China, ill disguised as tourists, and a couple of Orthodox Jewish teenagers in formal wear on an apparent first date. We watch a video about the plant's history, set to an original score by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and are shuttled into a planetarium-like room of swiveling chairs for a full-sensory "what it's like to become a Ford F-150" presentation. It involves crashing sounds, piped-in smells, and bursts of patriotic welding and smelting shown on innumerable wraparound movie screens.

What goes unsaid is that F-150 sales have been tanking of late, along with full-size SUV and pickup sales in general, a decline that economist Steven Szakaly of the Center for Automotive Research says is a fundamental "structural shift." As gas prices began to climb above $3 a gallon last July, Ford's truck-division sales fell by 44 percent. Domestic rival General Motors's fell by 28 percent. Ford ended the year with the worst losses in its 103-year history--$12.7 billion, more money than the GDP of 82 of the world's countries--and Chrysler announced plans to close four plants and cut 13,000 jobs after a $1.5-billion loss of its own. Both manufacturers' U.S. sales were overtaken by Toyota's. For the first time, the Big Three weren't the big three anymore.

After a display of the Rouge's environmental rebirth--songbird habitat, revitalized wetlands, a 10-acre "living roof" that's the largest in the world--we watch F-150 shells flow through a four-mile-long assembly line. Robots use lasers to place windshields with perfect precision; United Auto Workers unionists in street clothes use mechanical arms to lift heavy parts. Everything is smooth, bright, orderly, laudable--and oddly anachronistic. As we get back into our tiny car, I can't shake the feeling that the factory of the future is pumping out what may be the vehicle of the past.

MARSHALL, MICHIGAN, TO WILMINGTON, ILLINOIS

7.89 gallons, $20.19, 37 miles per gallon

"Your car should make other people smile. It should make you smile. Anybody can sit in traffic in a Taurus, you know?"--Ron Durchin, car collector and Budget franchise owner near Chicago

Interstate 94 through Michigan is broad and straight, and before Jenny and I pull into the Shell station in Marshall, we've been cruising in sixth gear at a steady 85 miles an hour. The ride has been smooth, so much like that of a normal sedan that it's still a shock when I step out the Smart's driver-side door and am already at the back of the car. "Whoa, that looks like Urkel's car," says a long-haired gas-station attendant. "Geeks of the world, unite!" adds his co-worker. This guy--thin, wearing thick glasses, terminally awkward--is named Pete. He sells us two window-mounted plastic cup holders for $1.69 apiece (our European Smart lacks these, although it does have a huge ashtray; the second-generation model that's coming next year corrects the oversight) and then asks if he can sit in the Smart. Pete slides his long frame into the driver's seat and looks around, taking in the car's surprisingly spacious fishbowl interior. He messes with the gearshift and adjusts the mirror. He grasps the wheel with both hands. "Sweeeet," he squeaks. "Huh. I might have to get one myself."

Steve Urkel, the nerd-star of the 1990s sitcom Family Matters, drove an Isetta, a BMW-built bubble car that was one of the most successful micros in post-World War II Europe. With three wheels and a windshield-cum-front-door, Urkel's car must have been the prop department's dream come true. As an example of a car that reflects its driver's personality, it's hard to match. Although the psychology of car buying is murky--in market surveys, owners can always come up with a "need" that explains their desire--certain vehicles are clearly meant to appeal more to the senses than to a sense of utility. Here in Marshall, we're witnessing a burst of geek emotion over the Smart, something that has everything to do with image and little to do with practicality. "I don't like the storage space," Pete says. "But...sweet."

A few hours down the road, Jenny and I make a detour to meet Ron Durchin, a man infected with a similarly impractical love of the Smart and the owner of the only agency in the country that will rent you one. A tall, gregarious car freak whose father opened Chicago's first Budget franchise 38 years ago, he had invited us to his new 40,000-foot body shop, AutoWerks, the largest in the Midwest. There, inside a cavernous garage, he tells the story of his Smarts' arrival. After being converted for American roads by a California company, his six cars were stacked sideways on a semi and trucked out here. The truck driver took twice as long as usual, because every time he stopped, people peppered him with questions. The Smarts were finally dropped off outside the Budget office in Skokie. "We probably had 500 people stop by that first day," Durchin says. "It got so bad that we had to lock them, because every time we went outside, someone was sitting down in one."

After import fees and conversion fees and transportation fees, the Smarts cost Durchin about $26,000 each. (Those coming directly to the U.S. market will be significantly cheaper; Smart estimates a price point below $15,000 for the 2008 launch, with the Wall Street Journal reporting it at close to $11,000 for an entry-level model.) Durchin rents them for $60 a day. His Web site's hits have gone up from 40,000 to 105,000 a month since he began using the cars for advertising, and he hopes for similar things for AutoWerks after he fixes up one of the Smarts to look like a Mercedes that's been smashed in on both ends. Still, for him, the appeal of the Smarts isn't altogether rational. He's not making any money off them, and when the fleet came in, he borrowed one of the cars for two months just so he could commute in it.

He ticks off a quick list of what he likes about the Smart mechanically--its zippiness off the line, the steel safety cell that surrounds passengers, the fact that he can get 65 miles a gallon (I'm getting around 40, but I have a lead foot). Yet it's obvious that what he really likes is the spectacle. "You can take it to a bar or restaurant and have fun just watching people's reactions," he says. "It's the car that comes with a social life."

WILMINGTON, ILLINOIS, TO ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

8.35 gallons, $21.62, 33 miles per gallon

"If they made it even smaller, what would they call it? The half-wit?" --Bill Shea, Shea's Route 66 Gas Station Museum in Springfield, Illinois

Past Chicago, we leave the freeways in favor of an old alignment of Route 66, and the American road becomes The American Road. We've already passed the world's first McDonald's franchise, not far from O'Hare airport, and now we're passing the first Dairy Queen as well. Perhaps because so many weird cars drive this route, nobody pays us much mind when we park the Smart below Wilmington's cone-headed, 28-foot-tall Gemini Giant, a fiberglass statue dressed as an astronaut, and run in to get burgers at the Launching Pad Drive-In. We get only a few stares when we drive through Dwight, home of the Waddle, an annual parade of hundreds of basset hounds.

Already we've brought the Smart beyond what's expected to be its natural range. It's a commuter car on a road trip, cruising the hinterlands, when some say it will appeal only to Hollywood types (Hey, look at me, I'm an environmentalist!) and to the urban creative class that's apparently ready to buy anything--iPods, RAZRs, you name it--that doesn't follow the proper rules of capitalization. (Smart, unlike dcd gW]'s copy editor, prefers to write its name as "smart." Its competitor the Mini Cooper is officially the "MINI.") But Dave Schembri, the president of Smart USA, points to three segments beyond the urban hip where he expects the Smart to sell well: first-time buyers (low price), empty-nesters (seating for two), and baby boomers looking for a second or third car ("It's perfect if you have a teenage daughter--no backseat"). Which is to say, Smart USA hopes that its market is just about everyone. "We're the rare vehicle with 50 percent emotional appeal, 50 percent rational appeal," Schembri says.

As we roll down Route 66, where automobiles were once escape pods for 1930s Dust Bowl refugees and a way of life for California-bound tourists in the 1950s, Jenny and I are entering a world dominated by that rational 50 percent--a world we hope will judge the Smart on its merits as a car, not a message. At Shea's Route 66 Gas Station Museum in Springfield, we peruse a collection of pumps, photos and motoring kitsch dating back 70 years. Bill Shea, the museum's wry 85-year-old owner, learns that I'm from Oregon and harangues me about all the climbers who keep dying on Mt. Hood. "If they don't have a purpose," he says, "then what in the hell is the point of being up there?" I tell him it's pretty. "They ought to put a restriction on people," he says. He pulls out an old point-and-shoot film camera and walks outside to snap a photo of the Smart. His assessment of it is typically no-nonsense. "Hmph. Not much room for hitchhikers."

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, TO MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE

7.89 gallons, $18.38, 34 miles per gallon

"I don't know what all it's supposed to do, but if it starts talking, I'm gone." --Marla, parking-lot security guard at Graceland's Rock 'n' Roll Cafe in Memphis

In the St. Louis suburbs, Jenny and I peel off Route 66 and join up with the Great River Road, a winding, sometimes hilly highway that parallels the Mississippi and is the stuff that car tests are made of. In its current incarnation, the Smart is said to top out at 85 miles an hour--though I've pushed it faster--and we're often the speediest thing on the road. I figure that its strange looks will inspire any cop who pulls me over for speeding to ask questions rather than issue tickets.

The Smart is not designed to be a road-trip car, but it's certainly a highway car--a Mercedes, after all. A product of DaimlerChrysler, it was born of a joint venture between the Swatch watch company and Mercedes, and it has a pedigree to live up to. The four wheels are literally at the four corners of the car--making for a wheelbase of 71 inches, 22 inches shorter than a Porsche 911's--and we gun the Smart around turns, hugging the road. Its acceleration, panned by Consumer Reports, which tested a pokier diesel model, is noticeably weak only on uphills (though perhaps I've been numbed by the acceleration-proof 1989 Mitsubishi Montero that I normally drive). The main thing is that Jenny and I don't feel small. The cockpit is roomier than my own SUV's, we're sitting upright and high off the ground, and we don't notice that the back half of our car is missing when we're looking ahead at the blur of fields and shortleaf forests.

Our biggest gripe is the transmission, which is fine in (clutchless) manual mode but hopelessly jerky in automatic. Perhaps more annoying is a mysterious power down--some strange Euro security feature--that's triggered when we leave the parked car unlocked for too long. More than once we've found ourselves sitting in the darkened car, locking and unlocking its doors and shifting through the gears as we try to get it going again. But all this is set for an overhaul in the second-generation Smart. The new American model will also come with a bigger, 71-horsepower engine, and it will have a top speed of 90 miles an hour. As if to prepare for the gluttonous U.S. market, it's also rumored to get worse gas mileage.

As we approach Memphis, high winds and a rainstorm hit, and the Smart is blown back and forth in a way that's reminiscent of my box of a Montero. I need to keep both hands on the wheel. We take shelter at the Memphis-Graceland RV Park & Campground, where a Smart-size cabin is tucked away on the corner of Don't Be Cruel Lane, not far from Blue Suede Lane, Shook Up Lane and Hound Dog Way. The RV park has free Wi-Fi. A sign in the bathroom reads "Don't spit out tobacco in our washroom."

Elvis was a car lover, the owner of a pink Cadillac, a 1966 Rolls-Royce and a pair of 250-horsepower Stutz Blackhawks. But the closest thing to a Smart that we see when we tour his Graceland car museum the next morning is a red MG that he drove in Blue Hawaii. He eventually gave it to his secretary. We've left the Smart in a parking lot outside the Rock 'n' Roll Cafe, and when we get back a security guard named Marla in a cap and heavy coat tells us it's been drawing a steady stream of curious tourists. A Hyundai Sonata driver, she seems afraid to touch the Smart and circles it warily. She asks the usual raft of questions. What is it? Is it electric? Is it a hybrid? What kind of mileage does it get? She's surprised to learn that its basic ingenuity is that it's a normal car. Just smaller.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE, TO HOULKA, MISSISSIPPI

4.10 gallons, $10, 38 miles per gallon

"I tell you what, I'm not saying nothing about it, that's a nice-looking car. But I wouldn't want to have a wreck in that thing." --Billy Joe Logan, Houlka, Mississippi

South of Memphis, Highway 78 is nightmarish, a three-lane artery clogged almost exclusively with semi trucks. Stuck among them, Jenny and I must look comical--or suicidal. As we creep forward, a toothless woman in a yellow J.B. Hunt hat leans out the window of a neighboring semi and yells down at us, "Hey, is that a prototype?" The wind and rain pick up, and we keep weaving between the giants.

"At least you're sitting high enough that you don't feel like a victim," Dan Hall, of the consultancy AutoPacific, says of the Smart. This is the kind of damning praise experts heap on the car, which will have to fight the perception that its size makes it unsafe. On its side is that rollovers, which are involved in a third of U.S. traffic deaths, are a symptom of trucks and SUVs, not of cars. And in statistics for single-vehicle crashes, small cars fare far better than pickups. Half of all road fatalities are from multiple-car accidents, however, and in these the laws of physics are straightforward: It's the little guy who takes the hit. The multiple-vehicle fatality rate for subcompact drivers is 94 deaths per million drivers, twice the average. The fatality rate for SUV drivers is 21 per million.

The problem for the Smart is not the Smart itself, but that it's caught in the middle of America's SUV arms race, with everyone trying to be the safest on the road by being the biggest on the road--a sort of vehicular mutual assured destruction. If the country migrates to "crossover" SUVs on car platforms (and this is a growing trend), the Smart will become safer. Also, the IIHS's dire statistics--already skewed by the fact that young, fast, dangerous drivers are more often in subcompacts than large SUVs--don't account for the fact that not all subcompacts are equal; the Smart is no Chevy Aveo or Hyundai Accent. In Europe's NCAP crash tests, the first-generation Smart got three out of five stars, better than the Ford Escort hatchback. The 2008 model will keep the "tridion safety cell," a roll cage of a cockpit that spreads impacts over the whole of the car, and will have four airbags and standard electronic stability control, a skid-prevention mechanism that the IIHS says can reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes by 50 percent. As for the antilock brakes, I use them to great effect when a cop in Oxford, Mississippi, waves us down. Turns out he just wants to ask about the car.

HOULKA, MISSISSIPPI, TO MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA

6.86 gallons, $17.15, 44 miles per gallon

"It's nice, but I dunno about fitting a beer cooler back there." --Wayne Coleman, regular at the Washington Oil gas station in Houlka, Mississippi

Tucked in the back of the Smart, in the five-cubic-foot luggage compartment that will be expanded to eight feet in the next-generation model, Jenny and I have everything we need for a weeklong road trip: one small internal-frame backpack (mine), one carry-on-size duffel bag (Jenny's), a camera bag, two jackets, two laptops, a queen-size air mattress and two sleeping bags.

These last couple things are so that we can camp out for a night or two. One evening, not far from Montgomery, we find a nice spot in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. For $50, we buy a tent that's bigger than the Smart, set it up in the light rain and attempt to park inside of it. Our tent site is in a patch of pavement right next to an RV, but soon a manager comes out to tell us that tent camping isn't allowed for "liability reasons." Yes, even if you're inside your car inside your tent. We give up our plan.

The manager, a big guy in his 30s with a shaved head and an easy smile, is named Gray. Before working for Wal-Mart, he says, he and his wife ran a small retail store of their own. He already had Wal-Mart stock, and after doing some research, he decided he wanted to work for the company. Now he manages 375 employees and a megastore where sales top $200,000 a day. Fifteen miles down the road is another Wal-Mart Supercenter that does $55 million a year, and 15 miles beyond that is one that does $100 million. Of the $70 million or so that Gray's store makes in annual revenues, the net profit is $1.9 million--a margin of less than 3 percent.

Gray casts an approving glance at the Smart and tells us that he just replaced his Silverado pickup with a Scion. "I was spending $60 on gas every three days," he says. "Now I'm spending $20 every six days." Here in the land of Wal-Marts, people appreciate efficiency.

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MONTGOMERY TO DOTHAN, ALABAMA

3.12 gallons, $7.75, 38 miles per gallon

"You should put a great big handle on the top. Then if you break down, you can just pick it up and carry it with you." --Donnie Mock, regular at the BBQ House in Troy, Alabama

We've picked the final stop of our road trip, Dothan, almost solely because of its Continental Drive-In theater, which operates four screens year-round below the starry Alabama sky. We're almost there when we spot a bar and restaurant called the BBQ House on a lonely stretch of Highway 231 and decide to stop in for some ribs. Parked outside are full-size trucks--an F-350, a Silverado--and parked inside are full-size people. Paul weighs 350 pounds, Donnie weighs 330, Chester is 6'3" and stands rather than sits due to a "broke knee."

At first their comments are polite but unenthusiastic, even a little snide--"Not much room for luggage," "I wouldn't want to get in a wreck in it," "Truckers must want to squash you like a bug"--but one of the regulars, Ron, seems to take the Smart seriously. "Well, I'll be damned," he says. "I need one of those just to get back and forth from my house." He makes his living delivering oversize signs around the country, and for that there's only one tool: his '07 Dodge Ram with the 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel. For his nightly 30-mile commute between his home and the BBQ House, he falls back on his hunting vehicle, a gas-guzzling Ford 4x4. The Smart is looking mighty appealing.

After Paul asks if he can put his Chihuahua, Chico, in the Smart, Chester decides to sit down in our "little buggy." He emerges impressed. "I tell you what," he says, "if I can get in there with my knee, anybody can get in there." He tells us that the last time he went to the drive-in was with a girl named Jackie Eddins in 1962, just before he joined the Air Force. "These cars will sell," he says. "We need these. We need a whole bunch of these." It's this reaction that must be Smart's dearest hope--that people will look at it not as a fashion statement, but as a simple solution to a problem.

At the drive-in, images of Jude Law and Cameron Diaz fill the windshield, and our rapture is interrupted only by the periodic automatic shutdown of the radio. The car is smart enough to let you turn on the radio without a key in the ignition but not smart enough to know that you might want to listen to a whole movie.

I'm checking us out of Dothan's Best Western the next morning when a maid named Freda taps me on the shoulder. "Is that your car?" she asks. "Lord, that's the ugliest little car I have ever seen in my entire life. Nobody in their right mind would buy a little car like that." It's a rental, I say. She asks why I'm in Dothan, and I explain that Jenny and I wanted to go to the drive-in. Freda laments that most of the other drive-ins have closed. "It's probably because of all the baby-making that went on there." I assure her that's not a problem in the Smart. "It's still weird-looking," she says. "It looks like it's been chopped off at both ends." A maintenance man has been listening in from across the lobby, and finally he interjects: "I'll bet it gets real good gas mileage, though." I tell him I've been getting 40 miles a gallon, and Freda pauses long enough to take another look at the Smart.

"What other colors does it come in?" she asks.

 


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