07
Sep
08

What’s Dumb About the Smart Car

I’ve wanted a Smart car ever since I saw one in Europe, eight years ago (where it’s a Mercedes-Benz), so when Smart debuted in the US with their $99 reservation program, I signed up right away.  After a year of anticipation I learned that with Smart, the road to Passion fortwo doesn’t always end in ecstasy.

It’s easy to love the Smart.  It’s beautifully designed, looks like fun, parks anywhere, preempts backseat drivers, comes beautifully equipped for $15K.  We wanted it because of the  real 37 mpg.  We all love that.  Here’s what you won’t like about it and the path to getting into it.

Smart Centers don’t stay open late: 6pm or 7pm on the weekdays, while all other dealerships are open until 9 or 10.  The early close makes it tough for city guys like Sam and me to finish with work at 5 or 6 and get there in time to have a meaningful experience, so we had to put it off ’til Saturday.

Smarts are automatic, which is fine, but the first thing you’ll notice is that the car is a little sluggish.  The Smart looks quicker than it is.  Plus, the transmission is a little clunky.  When we remarked on it, the salesman deftly moved to the (clearly-practiced) paddle shifting mode, and the clunkiness was gone.  The car suddenly felt like it should… zippy.  Fast even.  However, it reminded me of the Slickshift in my first car, a 1974 Bug.  Slickshift is shifting without a clutch.  You simply take your foot off the accelerator to shift.  A centrifugal clutch does the rest.  I burnt out three clutches that year, mostly because I’d shifted before the revs had gone down sufficiently, or just because I was 16 and driving the car like a madman – just like the salesman was driving the Smart.  The Smart tech might be 2008, but the experience was 1974. Neither Sam or I wanted to be the first to admit our disappointment.  We told ourselves it was the trade-off we’d make for the fuel economy.  We’d allow ourselves to be retrained.

After the drive we asked the finance manager about the Smarts they had in the showroom, and on the lot, because there were a lot of ’em in various states of transition.  All are pre-ordered.  Some are awaiting pick-up from those who ordered them into being.  Others are “orphans” that have been turned down by their first would-be owner, and are offered to those on a waiting list.  Others still have found no homes and await dealership pimping with custom paint, rims ($1,595), navigation (an insane $2,495 [the same unit is $1,100 at Best Buy]), and other add-ons.  They will be offered for sale – with no waiting – for as much as $25K.  “That’s crazy,” we thought, “why would anyone turn down their Smart?”

And then she added the most important part: the dealership only makes a few hundred dollars on pre-ordered Smarts, so they are not really motivated to sell them.  They’re in high demand, so sales quotas aren’t an issue and the price isn’t flexible.  Smart has a stake in NOT sending you off the lot in your pre-ordered Smart because they want to customize it and sell it for a higher profit.  Hmm.  We still had a couple weeks before our Smart arrived to think about that.

The glorious day came, and Sam went to the dealership to talk trade-ins.  According to the woman who looked at Sam’s 2005 Mazda 3 S, Smart’s buyers usually offer “about 50%” of the Kelley Blue Book appraisal, and sends disaffected customers to CarMax to unload their cars for a fair price.

Long story short, we picked up Mom and headed off to the Smart dealership to get the details of the deal.  For the sticker, you get the car.  They nickel and dime you for everything else, including the freaking mats.  It’s a joke that mats aren’t included in every car, but anyway.  The warranty, and extended warranty are pretty standard stuff, covering everything except the expendable items: oil, wipers, brakes, tires… and the clutch.  He said it several times.  The clutch.  The clutch.  The clutch.  Suddenly it was 1984, and I was replacing the clutch on my ’74 Vee Dub, three $400 times.  Expensive, because it was German.  Just like the Smart (a re-badged Mercedes-Benz).  Imagine what this clutch would cost.

With dogged determination we pressed on with the financing.  Smart finances primarily through Chase and Daimler, not exactly your most liberal lenders.  For customers with FICO scores under 730, they generously offer financing in the 11% – 12% range.  To put this into perspective, just last month I bought a 2008 Honda Fit through American Honda Finance, with a FICO below 730, for 7.25%.

Sam and Mom and I all looked at each other.  Something wasn’t feeling smart about this, so we broke for lunch.  Any seasoned car buyer knows that a dealership would sooner die than let you leave for lunch.  If you’re out the door, chances are you’re not coming back unless they call with a better offer.  Not Smart.  They encouraged us to take all the time we wanted.

Smart wants us to hustle to CarMax, all the way across Los Angeles, just to get fair value for Sam’s Mazda, so that we can come back and accept a credit card-level APR from a dealership that is invested in NOT delivering this car to us.

That’s just dumb.

We passed on the Smart, and we feel great about it.  We love the car.  We’d love it more if “getting into it” weren’t so difficult.

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8 Responses to “What’s Dumb About the Smart Car”


  1. Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    I’d advise anyone who is buying a SMART Car to get pre-qualified for a loan through their own bank or credit union. It’s really the only way to do this “smartly.” The SMART dealership in Universal City/Los Angeles(on 4227 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, CA 91603, phone number 818-762-7875) didn’t do anything to earn my business, and the employees practically reeked of opportunity cost.

  2. 2 waltzinexile
    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    But…But…But you look so cute standing next to the car!!

  3. Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    I’m so glad you guys made the “smart” move to walk away from this car. The antiquated transmission dates back over 10 years to the first generation Smart ForTwo. Mercedes has better transmissions in its parts bin that it could have adapted for Smart.

    A friend in MDR just bought the loaded convertible version of the ForTwo. He likes driving it around town – he doesn’t drive it in the city. However, his “real world” in-town fuel economy is around 25 mpg. The salesman from the Beverly Hills Smart dealership told him that his fuel economy would improve after he drives 500 miles. This is b.s. Cars don’t need a break-in period like they did 30 years ago. I doubt that more time and miles will make a difference.

    I don’t think 25 mpg is so great for this tiny car that should get nearly double that figure. You could drive a nice new Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic that gets about the same in-town fuel economy – but you get loads more room, two rear seats and a usable trunk!

    After the Panic of 2008 passes, perhaps people will be more rational in their car choices. We have so many great fuel efficient cars coming by 2010 that it makes sense to keep your existing ride and pay a little extra for gas now. You won’t have to lose your pants by taking such a huge hit when you trade-in or sell your existing ride.

  4. Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    You do look cute (and hot!) next to the car. But from the first day you said you 2 wanted one (or 2) I could not get that YouTube video of the SmartCar crash test out of my head. I care about both of you too much to think about that same situation! Kudos to you both for being……SMART!

  5. 5 Hud
    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    Your sage wisdom prevalied guys. There were several obstacles to overcome: (1) The value – the Honda Fit gets as-good hwy mileage I believe, and allows you to carry more than a tennis racket and a Zagnut bar. (2)The price/warranty – Daimler is more foolish than I ever thought – the Toyota iQ is just around the corner, which will offer the same micro dimensions and seating for three, as well as proven mechanicals….their product will eclipse the smart for the same reasons that Lexus garnered so many Mercedes conquests – by offering courtesy and professionalism during the sales experience….but I digress. Lastly, (3) the smart’s powertrain is a three-cylinder provided by Mitsubishi and is untested in the American market; in addition to concerns about the clutch, I’d recommend a wait-n-see policy to find out how the build quality stands the test of time.

    All in all, a wise move to walk, with the financing being the final straw. Keep an eye out for several other great alternatives that are coming to market: the Saturn Astra (which sold under the Opel brand in the EU and has a great reputation), the Ford Fiesta (which has also been a brilliant car enjoyed only by the EU since it’s disappearance here in the US years ago), the previously mentioned Toyota iQ microcar, and the return of the Honda Insight hybrid in about a year which will likely cost less and deliver more than the Toyota Prius.

  6. 6 Mitch
    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    That Smart car dealer is owned by the same people that own Universal Mini and Century West BMW, both of which are the most aweful Mini and BMW dealers in town.

  7. Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    That is funny, Randy and I went to the smart car dealership in Kansas city thinking “What a cool car” and left the lot feeling like you. The other thing that bothered us was the 2 year 24,000 mile warranty… that is way below most new vehicle warranties.

  8. 8 Tom
    Monday, September 8, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    24mpg???? I live in Hilly Seattle and spend no time on the highway. My very worst tank was 36.5mpg. And yes, my mileage has been getting better. they do need to wear in for smooth performance (its not a watch). If you want performance get a mini.


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