Get in, turn the key, press the accelerator and . . . wait. From the moment you climb into the multi-colored, minitalented new Smart, driving becomes as unfamiliar an experience as flying to the moon.
Developed for billions of D-Marks by Mercedes-Benz and Swatch, the Swiss watchmaking concern, the Smart has been plugged as a stylish and environmentally friendly answer to the problems of mobility in Europe's traffic-choked cities.At just 8.25 feet long, it could almost fit in the trunk of consumption; approaching 60mpg, it can travel about as far, in spite of its much tinier tank. Even the limitation of having only two seats has been turned into an advantage: Micro Compact Car, the German-Swiss joint venture behind the Smart, claims most journeys involve only 1.2 occupants, making rear seats all but redundant.
In a matter of weeks, drivers in Europe will be able to judge for themselves whether the Smart is worth the money behind it. Based on a lengthy drive in Barcelona, I reckon British motorists are probably lucky that MCC decided British sales would not warrant the conversion costs for right-hand drive.
Cataloguing the Smart's failings is as easy as mistaking it for a squashed mailbox. On the winding road up to the observatory on Barcelona's Tibidabo hill, a 40-ton truck would have steered more predictably. The Smart's rear-mounted engine compromises its weight distribution, reducing frontal grip. That makes it worryingly wayward on corners as the front wheels stray into the oncoming carriageway and the low-geared steering resists attempts to correct the drift.
A seemingly comatose automatic gearbox, stifling the performance of the Smart's sprightly 600cc turbocharged engine, is its second big flaw. Manual gear changes become virtually essential to achieve any sort of performance. But the entertainment value of flicking the Smart's unusual clutchless gear lever upwards or downwards to shift between ratios wears off quickly as working through the gears becomes tiresomely frequent.
A disconcerting instability in crosswinds is the Smart's third failing. Its high sides and tiny wheelbase make it susceptible to the sudden gusts blowing across the coastal highway. This is particularly disappointing as the car otherwise feels remarkably confident at speed, even when pushed beyond the electronically limited 72 mph its speedometer claims is its maximum.
Many of the Smart's failings stem from the costly last-minute changes demanded by Daimler-Benz's bosses late last year. Stung by devastating international publicity after their new A Class, another stubby car, overturned in an "elk test" maneuver, the bigwigs were determined the Smart would not suffer the same ignominy and ordered an expensive re-engineering to rid it of any wayward tendencies.
But curing the Smart of its rumored vulnerability to the elk has created a flawed compromise. The Smart may no longer be unstable in certain extremes. But, as Europe's motoring magazines have declared almost unanimously, deadening its changes has lobotomized the original concept for a nippy, small town car.
Undaunted, MCC says many buyers are less bothered by handling and performance than by novelty and style - the Smart's two strongest suits. In spite of its truncated dimensions, it feels roomy and classy inside. That comes from slightly staggering the two front seats and by using lots of glass, including, for top models, the roof.
Once over the fact that the car's rear bumper is only inches behind the driver's seat, the overall sensation out of the big, steeply raked front window is of being in a much bigger vehicle.
Some may buy the Smart for its stylish and well-finished cabin alone. Brightly colored trays fold out for cassettes and CDs. They are complemented by amusing, dashboard-mounted instruments, which cock a snook at the funereal functionality of most fascias. The fact that these, like the sliding plastic panel to block the sun under the glass roof, are pricey extras dulls their appeal, however.
The exterior is almost as unusual. Built around a high-strength steel cage to protect passengers, most of the Smart's bodywork is made of plastic panels that can be easily removed and exchanged for quick, cheap repairs. This also gives owners immense flexibility to customize the color scheme. For those not satisfied by the standard palette, MCC is taking a leaf out of Swatch's book by producing some special limited edition exterior panels each year.
Such novelty will enhance the car's appeal to the thousands of people who line up patiently outside Swatch shops to buy its latest timepieces as fashion accouterments rather than chronometers. But even if the Smart were not a deeply compromised car, its price tag of $8,800-$11,100 - not much less than the cheapest four-seaters - would make even the most dedicated fashion follower think twice.
MCC plans to build 200,000 Smarts a year at its new factory in eastern France as sales build up after next month's launch. Based on a first drive, it will be lucky to sell half that number.