Smart Cars in Metro Detroit: Still Smart?

Enroute to winning $448,000 on the Los Angeles set of NBC game show Deal or No Deal  last October, Tommy Knowlton scored something bigger than the briefcases of buckos on offer: It looks like a dinosaur's roller skate, but runs on a 1-liter, 3-cylinder engine. It has environmental sex appeal. Oh, and it takes two of these cuties to fill one parking space.

"Before they revealed the car, they said to me, 'The challenge is, all you need to do is get in it. You have to get in and shut the door, if you can fit inside it's yours'…So I walked right down there and with ease just got in it and shut the door and they said it was mine, free and clear," recalls the pharmacy technician from Sterling Heights.

He knew the smart fortwo  – at just over eight feet long and five feet wide, a weehicle by any measure – was his for the taking. He'd already comfortably slid his six-three, 400-pound frame into the two-seater on display at the Detroit auto show.

Over the last 5,000 miles on the road, he and his wheels have been regularly recognized and photographed – and admired. "All the girls think it's so cute!" he claims.

Knowlton also owns a Chrysler 300C, but commutes to work at Beaumont Hospital in his babe-magnet black Passion Coupe. Off duty, he cruises with his six-foot-plus, 300-pound buddies. (One passenger at a time, please).

A brake on gas

Bloomfield Hills-based Smart USA, a division of Penske Automotive Group, is the exclusive U.S. distributor for the brand owned by Daimler AG and manufactured in France. The ballyhoo? At EPA ratings of 33 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway, the smart fortwo gets the highest mileage of any gasoline-powered vehicle in the United States; comparable to a hybrid, but without the cost premium, Rick Cortwright, brand manager at smart center Bloomfield, says.

As such, the smart fortwo's share of the Compact Basic Car segment has nearly doubled in the U.S. – from 3.3% in March 2008 to 6.3% in March 2009, according to the Power Information Network. Parked an average of just 29 days on dealer lots, it's a top 10 hot model for March 2009. 

Itty-bitty, inexpensive, and fuel-frugal are the operative words the world over. Similar in appearance but slightly larger than the smart (it holds four people), the Tata Nano, at about $2,500 the world's cheapest new car, is now available for sale exclusively in India.

Without the winning prize, the three models – the Pure Coupe, the Passion Coupe, and the Passion Cabriolet – are base priced at $12-17,000. A fully loaded Cabriolet runs just over $20,000, Cortright says. Not quite nano-level, but not otherworldly. 

While cars are typically sold through an online reservation system, where $99 gets your order in with options to customize, smart center Bloomfield (Michigan's sole outlet) has stock now for clients flexible with colors and options. Delivery used to take about a year, but the economic slowdown now equates to a 5-month wait, Cortright says.
While Italy is the top market for the vehicle, in the United States "We're perfectly happy to fill 25-30,000 vehicles a year, which is what we can get in allocation from the assembly plant, and as far as Detroit is concerned it does just as well as most markets," Cortright observes. "We've sold beyond our planning volumes in Detroit. We were expecting short of 800 the first year and we sold over 800, so we're very pleased."

There is no typical buyer, he says. Baby boomers, urban dwellers, and commuters all find room in this buggy. "Something like 70% of all vehicles are driven with one occupant. It works extremely well as an add-on or second vehicle for a lot of homes."

Revving up recycling

The car, which is 95% recyclable, has a big following among green enthusiasts, Cortright adds. The entire manufacturing process is green-driven, from the construction of the plant to its exterior grounds, which eschew manicured lawns in favor of more natural vegetation, to the powder-coat painting process, which eliminates overspray.

Environmental considerations were top priority when Linda Diane Feldt, a holistic health practitioner from Ann Arbor, made her purchase decision. "I was looking for something very fuel-efficient and very safe, and then the environmental practices of how it's built and their consistency at every stage of the process was extremely impressive. And that includes the dealership, which is selling it from a LEED-certified building." She notes one drawback: the carbon footprint of shipping the car to the U.S. from France.

Her Passion Coupe is metallic blue with black exterior trim, red interior, and a WIZDOM vanity plate. She's driven her primary car about 1,600 miles thus far, at up to 38 mpg in the city. She also has a 14-year-old pickup truck, but the smart feels roomier to her. It handles well on snow and ice, and fits in parking spots half-filled with snow, she says.

Moreover, the social benefits of being the runt of the road are hardly miniscule. It helped her get a date – plus an unexpected burst of affection. A woman ran up and hugged the car when Feldt rolled into the drive-in section of Ann Arbor's Downtown Home and Garden store.

Curb appeal

Cortright says it's common to see the smart backed or pulled into a parallel parking spot; at just over eight feet, its length is similar to the width of many cars. And in 90 minutes, barely more time than it takes to change your hairstyle, the co-polymer body panels can be switched out for those of another color – a good disguise for hiding from the police.

According to Metromode's unscientific survey of the owners featured here, with 12 cubic feet of storage space, the cargo area holds everything from a gaggle of groceries to a 32-inch TV (with front seat folded flat) to a 65-pound dog.  On the minus side, the car lacks a tilt wheel, armrest, cruise control, and spare tire (it comes with an air pump as a temporary fix). The plusses? All cited the interior roominess and the fun factor of ownership.

The brand has its own social networking website that serves as a hub for Michigan owners to trade tips and make play dates. At last year's Grand Prix on Belle Isle, 45 cars took a lap on the racetrack. And 80 vehicles rode in a caravan in the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Dream cruiser Mark Carlson (aka Mr. Incredible) has gotten up to 45 mpg in his Passion Coupe. It's been a heroic year for the engineer and wanna-be comedian from Bloomfield Hills. He's put 22,000 miles on his ride (including a trip to Florida); been photographed in caped costume; and completely made over his Incredible Mobile. He switched the body panels from white to red, black powder-coated the wheels, painted the brakes yellow, and added an Incredible logo and NCRDBLE license plate.

Carlson, who also owns a Jeep and two minivans, says that until 2007, his auto purchases had been strictly "pragmatic", but the smart car's entertainment value clinched the deal. While driving through Chrysler property recently, "I come to a stoplight and there are two geese by the side of the road. Their heads are following my car. Everybody looks at this car, even the geese." They didn't honk, but "they gandered."

Apparently, even the geese see that micro-compact fuel-sippers may really be overtaking our streets. Feldt hopes so, but also envisions a larger road map. "I'd like to see a combination of Zipcars, the co-ownership of larger vehicles, small cars for commuting, and access to vans and larger cars for families that need them... So a whole system that has greater mass transportation and co-using, sharing either commercially or privately, is the future. But certainly, small safe commuter cars are an essential component."

Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor at Metromode. Her previous article was The New Business Casual: Social Media.


Smart Car Dealership - Bloomfield Hills

61 cubic inch engine ( 1000 cc ) is located in the hatch of the vehicle

Smart Car Dealership - Bloomfield Hills

Rick Cortright, Brand Manager

Proud smart car owner, Mark Carlson

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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