It is a matter of acquired taste, which means it is not for everyone. But it is catching on, with nearly 1.3 million models having been sold worldwide since its inception in 1998, including 40,000 sold in the United States since its introduction here in 2008.
To the point: The Smart Fortwo is not an American car. It is the motorized progeny of a mind-set that is very un-American, a car conceived by people who have made peace with suffering, who have accepted the reality of limits, who understand that “fun to drive” often means having something to drive in the first place.
That it is catching on at all in America, a country in which the concept of limits has long been anathema, means some Americans are beginning to see the world as it is — a place in which people fight and die over natural resources such as oil and water, in which “getting there” often means walking many miles, in which buying a car is possible only after presenting proof of ownership or legal access to a spot in which to park it.
All of that is a hard sell in the United States, a land of what remains the cheapest gasoline in the developed world, a landscape of broad and seemingly endless highways, a place where car ownership is considered the birthright of 16-year-olds . . . and where “small” and “loser” frequently share close company in share of mind of the American retail consumer.
How, then, to attract the American buyer to an automobile so foreign in concept and design? Germany’s Daimler AG, maker of Mercedes-Benz and Smart automobiles, is trying to do it by Americanizing Smart.
It is an odd exercise, as represented by the 2011 Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe driven for this week’s column.
Viewed one way, the Passion Coupe comes off as a luxury micro-car. It offers a panoramic glass roof as standard equipment, a premium sound system as an option along with onboard navigation. Electronic infotainment possibilities are many. Power locks and window controls are standard, as are many safety devices, such as knee-bolster, side and head air bags.
But loving this one requires acceptance of a worldview beyond U.S borders. It’s tiny, just 8.8 feet long. That’s great for parking in super-congested cities such as Rome, and it makes practical sense in teeming U.S. metropolises such as New York.
But most American consumers don’t buy cars to park them. Daily, they are fed hours of television commercials showing happy motorists zooming off into the sunset. In the Passion Coupe, you won’t zoom anywhere.
Zooming, in this one, is not an option. The car comes standard with a 1-liter in-line three-cylinder gasoline engine (70 horsepower, 68 foot-pounds of torque). The good thing is that almost all other cars on American roads zoom around you, leaving you blessedly alone.
Shifting gears in the rear-wheel-drive Passion Coupe requires patience—an appreciation of the poetic elegance of the slower things in life. The car is equipped with a five-speed automated manual transmission, which, in this case, means it works grudgingly as both a manual and an automatic.
But although loving this car is difficult, it is not impossible. You eventually grow accustomed to its quirks and make certain adjustments on your end. You become a compassionate part of much of the rest of the motorized world.