So this is the wave of the future. Or maybe a wavelet. I'm piloting the new Smart fortwo coupe along the highway in a thick rainstorm, feeling like a kid crossing a busy street on his own for the first time: Should I even be here? The fortwo is so tiny—28 percent shorter than a Mini Cooper—that I can touch the rear windshield from the driver's seat. That Ford Explorer one lane over weighs almost three times as much: Does that make me "smart" or suicidal? And when I stop to pick up a friend, she's reluctant to climb in, fearing it might trigger a bout of claustrophobia.
The fortwo accomplishes its job, though: It gets me around, and I never have to get out and push it up a hill. The cabin is actually comfortable for two ordinary-size people. You can get necessities—whoops, on the Smart, they're options—like A/C, a stereo, and power windows—for less than $14,000. The roof kept the rain out. And it took a lot of driving to budge the gas needle, thanks to average fuel economy of close to 40 mpg.
Homemade-go-cart sensation. People who buy a hybrid for the first time have to get used to the golf-cart sensation: The car goes silent when you stop, because the gas engine shuts down. But it's actually pleasant, because it's quiet—with no downside tradeoffs. The Smart's biggest quirk is more troublesome: When you press the gas, the lags between shifts are so prolonged that for a second, it feels like the car is dying. Then, finally, acceleration resumes. This happens when the automatic transmission shifts from first to second, second to third, and all the way up to fifth gear. And it's unnerving. Nobody wants a car that has to stop and think about it for a second before deciding to lurch up to highway speed.
This could be a fatal flaw in the U.S. market, unless Smart fixes the anomaly. Optional paddle shifters on the steering wheel help reduce the shift lags—but Americans don't like paddle shifters, even though they're popular in Europe. Many buyers in this price range won't even know what they are. For the Smart to succeed, it has to feel like a car—not like a buggy rigged together from stuff lying around the garage.
Enjoyment. So let's say nobody knows your car has the automobile equivalent of erectile dysfunction. Keep this little problem to yourself and you can strut a bit. The Smart's three-cylinder, 70-horsepower engine might sound comical, but the car is so light that the engine is actually quite adequate. Decent-size 15-inch tires help provide a stable feel on the highway, and with the wheels pushed way out to the corners of the chassis, handling is crisp and downright fun. I got close to the Smart's top speed of 90 miles per hour and was happily surprised to find that the car didn't shudder, whine, or otherwise frighten me.
Cockiness. Five years ago, when Hummers and Hemis were hot, toddling around in a Smart would have felt embarrassing. But now, big SUVs are gaudy, and small is sexy. At stoplights and in parking lots, other drivers ogled the Smart, asking enviously what kind of mileage I was getting. My confidence surged. Every time I passed an SUV (or rather, an SUV passed me), I felt like sticking my tongue out and chanting nah nah, nah nah nah: I'm getting 40 mpg!
Elation. Anybody who drives in an urban area knows the thrill of finding free parking on the street. I drive frequently in New York City and once bought a motorcycle just so I could park wherever I wanted to. The Smart felt almost as satisfying. Other drivers would pass up half-size parking spots without a glance; I'd pull right into them, then get out and marvel at the miracle. Even in mall parking lots, the nimble Smart lets you duck in and out of tight spaces with ease, while suburbanites in SUVs inch into their spaces and try not to back into each other.
Mini envy. The Smart will work as a commuter car or occasional runabout, but most people won't be able to use it as a primary vehicle, simply because it can't hold more than two. Even people who don't care about that will probably ask themselves whether they should spend a bit more for a Mini or Scion—which can hold more and travel almost as far on a gallon of gas. And besides, those cars are more, well, conventional. And these days, just as smart.