My smart car is approaching 6 years old and I still enjoy it. It is my only vehicle but that doesn’t say too much because I don’t drive too much.
I never much cared for the name. I liked the story about it being designed by Swatch and engineered by Mercedes to be a something of a novelty car, one made for its art more than anything. Swatch Mercedes Art truncates to SMArt but the name itself was probably chosen first and justified later. I don’t know.
The model is called smart fortwo. I live alone. I keep the passenger seat folded down. I like Art better than smart. So I renamed my car model ART4-1. I even imagined it being redesigned with just one seat, perhaps centered but I’m sure that is legally impossible.
The story of picking out the car started when I was thinking of replacing my previous car, a Plymouth Neon. I didn’t really have any complaints about that car. As a car it was ok. But I became aware of being annoyed at driving around all the time with an empty back seat and an empty trunk. To be clear, I didn’t think it was wasteful. I just thought it didn’t fit.
I first got the car thinking maybe I’ll use the extra space but by that time 6 years ago I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I then imagined the analogy of a buying a suit that is several sizes too big just in case I would gain some weight. Nothing wrong with that, since a belt can hold up the pants and the jacket would serve its purpose if it weren’t excessively large. At the time I was pretty slender but it wasn’t long before when I was about 80 pounds heavier so it was not unreasonable to think I could grow into a larger suit fairly easily.
In fact, about that same time I still had one of my older suits that just for grins I tried on. It would have made a good photo for a weight loss commercial. At one time, it was actually too tight.
I’m not sure which thought came first, the fact that my suit was far over-sized or my car was. I know I got rid of both at about the same time.
That would be about 2007 and I was also considering a home remodeling project. A similar theme came up as I had a smallish house that managed to carve out two bedrooms upstairs. The first floor had a kitchen originally designed with no accommodation for even a refrigerator (corrected with an earlier remodeling effort that cost me a coat closet). There was a space you can all a dining room but it was too small for a dining table (asking around furniture stores and they said I was looking for a “breakfast table”). There was space for a living room but it might accommodate a sofa and a TV stand. As little as the house it, it was somehow too big.
I got the idea of remodeling the house to rip out the walls on the second floor including the wall making the stairwell and turn top floor from two bedrooms into a flat loft. I installed a wall bed so that it could spend most of its time folded into the wall so I could enjoy the open space as neither a bedroom or a living room but simply a loft. Likewise I redefined my first floor from a living room and dining room to simple a foyer leading to the stairwell to the loft. The effect was emphasized with the a rough-textured tile floor. I have a tiny bar table at one end for dining and a piano at the other end as my main pastime of practice rather than playing.
The result was a house that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than how I was using it. It became well-fitted to me.
At the start of this house project I was thinking about replacing the car and then saw an advertisement for a smart car. It was some company that imported the European model and then retrofitted it to comply with US laws. The size and dimensions of the car appealed to me just like the remodeling project. It was an opportunity to get rid of the charade that I was prepared for passengers and shopping runs to warehouse stores.
I always was a solitary person but I kept thinking it was a phase I would grow out of. I figured I would someday “grow up” and have a need for a car that could carry passengers and a house to at least entertain guests. By my mid-40s I finally decided I was the person who I always was, a solitary person.
Back to the introduction to the idea of a smart car, I saw that the company was planning on selling directly to US market a year later and was accepting orders from the factory. I figured the timing was fine so I used their website to give them the specs to make the car to order. I wasn’t very creative. I chose the default no-additional-cost color scheme of totally black. I made this choice on the realization that the only people buying this car at the time were buying it for its novelty and of course they would pick different color schemes. However, I did pick the convertible model so my car took longer to deliver. When I picked it up, the dealer confirmed that black was rare. Who would request a default color for a built-to-order car that would take more than a year to deliver? That would be me.
The house remodeling was done by the time I got the car. It didn’t take me long to figure out that passenger-seat folded down actually improves driving experience. It took me two years to come up with the license plate name, though.
I came up with the name to drop the “SM” of the name and emphasize it is a car for one instead of for two. However, coincidentally, the county has a bus system called ART (Arlington Regional Transit) and my usual route sometimes coincides with a route number 41. So sometime one may see two ART 41 vehicles drive next to each other. It was purely a coincidence. In any case our transit systems use a different color scheme so there shouldn’t be any confusion.
I had my one man house and one man car fit just right to my lifestyle, such as it is. At first I was kind of proud of these innovations to brag about them at the office. But I soon found out that they didn’t see the benefits of scaling down.
One likened my house to a bird-cage. Initially hurt by that analogy I thought about the relative dimensions of my height and the size of the house with the scale of a pet bird. The proportions really aren’t much difference. Bird cages don’t have much in the way of furnishings either.
Of course the car is compared to a joke car, or a clown car. It is too tall to be sporty (not to mention the 90 HP 3-cylinder engine lacking the power to impress). In an age where SUVs are nearly if not the majority of cars on the road, this car seems practical. Yet, I haven’t regretted the missing capacity.
I downsized my possessions to be a better fit for what I actually need. It is strange that we’d be criticized for our frugality of buying clothes too large to allow for eventually growing into them while at the same time of not having excess capacity in vehicles and houses. I think it is about style in both cases. Clothes that fit well make me feel good. A car and house that fits well has a similar affect.
I would have thought I would have tired of the novelty of the car by now. Instead I have no desire to drive anything else. I recall someone talking about their smart that they tow behind their vacation motor-home. The call the car their escape pod allowing for more practical access to town than driving the entire motor-home. I like that concept of it being more of a pod.
When it first came out, it was uniquely small. Now there are others nearly as small. But initially it was so small that it hardly qualifies as a car. I thought the time it’s market actually overlaps somewhat with motorcycles. Obviously the ride and experience are completely different but the carrying capacity and size are not far different. I enjoyed making the point of parking the car in the office parking lot at a spot too small for anything larger than a motorcycle. It wasn’t hard to get the car in that spot at all. A few fair weather days a motorcycle would steal that spot and it seemed to take up the space about as much as my car did. I don’t fancy motorbiking but I do admire its minimalist approach to transportation. I feel my car approximates the same minimalism.
Perhaps the most addicting aspect of the smart is its odd transmission. I recall trying to drive it for the first time in its automated mode. I used this mode most of the time for the first couple months but it took a while to predict when to let up on the gas because was about to shift gears on me. I finally gave up and just when full-time manual transmission.
It has an electronic clutch with a computer that will downshift on its own even in manual model. This works fine on the highway. But it is very quirky at low speeds, in other words the more common conditions in the city. I end up arguing with it: it downshifts to 1 and I immediately upshift to 2 and moments later I’m back to 1. I can’t fault anyone from hating that, but I liken it to negotiating with a horse. It has a mind of its own, sometimes.
I read about the all-electric version and I considered getting it but my last job was 35 miles away for a 70+ mile round trip that was over its full charge range. But I wonder if I would really like it as much. The auto reviews frequently praise its far smoother ride because there is no gear shifts at all. That makes me think I wouldn’t like it. It is exactly the ride that most people complain about that I find so appealing. As a vehicle it is not completely tamed.
I have not driven it much since dropping out of work. I use it just for short trips to the store partly to conserve money but also partly because I’m trying to spend more time on my piano rather than motoring around. I like to think it is well suited for such light duty. Because the engine is so small the short trips are enough to warm up the engine. The only trouble I had was a dead battery the first year during the coldest winter day, I presume because I didn’t drive it enough to keep the charge up. The dealer upgraded to a larger battery while the car was still in its generous (ha ha) one year warranty.
The small size also has an advantage to make it easier to regularly use a car cover. I don’t have a garage and the cover is nice especially in the warmer seasons since the car parks under some trees. Taking off the cover and replacing it is practical to use daily in between commutes to work. I’ve heard a neighbor compare its covered appearance as like a covered outdoor grill, that nowadays are getting to be as large as my entire kitchen.
It give the impression I don’t have a car at all. That suits me just fine.
I drive an uncar. I live in an unhouse spending my unemployed time blogging and fantasizing about someday being able to play JS Bach in a somewhat listenable manner.