Friday Fleet Notes: 1.25.07

Friday Fleet Notes is back, and even in its absence our staff has been diligently recording thoughts on the latest cars to come into the offices. The new Smart elicited the most comments we’ve gotten in a long time, but a Lexus hybrid and Lincoln SUV made an impression too.

Smart ForTwo Passion (original expert review w/video)

  • Niche cars like the Smart ForTwo will sell no matter what, but in case you’re wondering whether you need to envy your neighbor who bought one and can now park wherever he feels like it, the answer is no.

    It’s not that you’ll feel cramped inside; there’s plenty of space in the driver’s seat, and until you look over your shoulder you may even forget you’re driving a car straight out of Munchkinland. The problem with this little car is that it’s miserable to drive. The automatic transmission is awful, especially at low speeds, the brakes are jerky, a gust of wind makes you feel as if you’re about to tip over, and every bump and crack in the road feels like railroad tracks.

    There’s an auto-manual mode that helps a lot with the jerkiness, but it’s a pain to use paddle shifters at low speeds. The paddles turn with the steering wheel, so midway through a left turn, as the tachometer quickly approaches the redline, you’ll be left to reach frantically for an ever-moving target. Why this car doesn’t have a plain-old manual transmission is beyond me.

    The ergonomics inside aren’t bad, though the seat adjustments aren’t very smooth. My biggest gripe here was that the cargo shelf behind the front seats is inaccessible without moving the seat forward, and that handle is on the inside of the driver’s seat. That means that if you need to toss anything back there (like, you know, a purse), be prepared to reach across the seat and get smacked by the seatback before you can do so. — Beth Palmer, copy editor

  • It's hard to think of a fleet car I've been in that's managed to gain more attention than the ForTwo. In fact, I'd have to say that no other car I’ve driven has made heads turn as much as this micro machine did. Pony up $12,000 for one of these, and instant celebrity can be yours.

    The ForTwo feels a little unrefined on the whole. The turn signal and wiper stalks feel cheap, but more importantly the car's automated-manual transmission makes annoyingly slow shifts when left in its fully automatic mode, and the experience only slightly improves when the transmission is in its manual mode. I wouldn't be surprised if this transmission hurts the car's chances in the U.S. — Mike Hanley, reviewer

  • I got all of 15 minutes in the Smart, and that was enough for me on the driving side. That transmission is ridiculous, as others have noted. However, the interior materials, roomy cabin and amazing stereo were pleasant surprises. — David Thomas, KickingTires editor

  • The Smart car made the rounds of our reviewers, successively disappointing everyone. I drove the Euro-spec version here over the summer and was told the transmission's behavior would be reworked for the U.S. It wasn't — or at least it wasn't enough. In time I learned to finesse this one's accelerator such that a passenger would have no clue anything was different, but this was in Drive mode, and automatics are supposed to be "left foot stop/right foot go," period. Stepping harder on the pedal and feeling the car slow down is disconcerting and certainly not acceptable to most drivers. The car rode rough, handled skittishly and was susceptible to crosswinds. Even the turning circle wasn't as tight as you'd want. The starting price is very low, but even so this is a car that calls for sacrifices, and I don't think 33/40 mpg is worth the sacrifice, even if that were on low-octane fuel. If the ForTwo isn't changed, I have a hard time envisioning it as anything but a craze whose star fades very quickly. — Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor
  • 2008 Lexus LS 600h L

    • So what's it like to drive the $104,000 Lexus LS 600h L hybrid luxury sedan? Well, it's a lot like the $72,000 Lexus LS 460 L luxury sedan. Sure, the interior is a little nicer, but the non-hybrid LS is very nice in its own right. It also has all-wheel drive, better emissions and its combined gas mileage is 21 mpg, as opposed to 19 mpg. Great. If you want exclusivity, the hybrid should have it at this price, but most folks won't know you spent the extra dough because exterior changes are subtle and easily overlooked. For an extra $32,000, I want more. — Mike Hanley, reviewer

    • I got to drive the LS 600h L on two long commutes (hour plus) with my wife in the car. The second night I convinced her to hit the back seat for the full chauffeuring experience. She enjoyed the extra room but didn’t think the seat reclined enough. I thought the interior was nice — but perhaps $72,000 nice, not $104,000 nice. Not even close.

      Still, I was plenty content in the driver’s seat. This thing hustles with the best of them. The ride is silky smooth and the power is always there — in gobs — when you hit the gas. I don’t care if it gets midsize sedan mileage, this hybrid is a sleeper! — David Thomas, KickingTires editor

    2008 Lincoln Navigator L (original expert review)

    • It’s funny how the Navigator differs from Detroit’s other dub-runner, the Cadillac Escalade. The Escalade’s cabin can fool you into thinking you’re driving a luxury car. Not so with the Navigator: The dashboard feels stodgy and trucklike, even if the materials are upscale. Improbably, the second and third rows seem just the opposite — headroom and legroom are minivan-like, and I think I could even enjoy a trip in the way-back bleacher seats.

      Both rows of seats fold nearly flat, and easily at that. The power-folding third row is especially slick, though I wish it had one-touch operation — you have to hold the button down forever while the seats do their thing. Still, I much prefer it over the Escalade’s old-school tumbling third row.

      Driving is another matter. Modest bumps produce lingering reverberations, and if you hit an expansion joint on any sort of curve, the steering wheel shimmies as the wheels regain their footing. I’m least impressed with the brakes, which have a lot of pedal travel – even for an SUV – before they clamp down. — Kelsey Mays, reviewer