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Are Smart Cars Safe and Economical—or Just Small?

Parking Them is Easy, But Do Smart Cars Offer Enough Bang for the Buck?

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Woman standing in front of a Smart Car, and spreading her arms wide to illustrate its small size.

The EPA rates the Smart Cars fuel efficiency at 33 miles per gallon for city driving and 41 on the highway. Three Smart Cars with bumpers to the curb can fit in a single parallel parking spot.

Photo courtesy of Spike55151/Flickr
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve suddenly been seeing a lot of those tiny “Smart Cars” around. Who makes them and what is their fuel efficiency? And I’m all for fuel efficiency, but are these cars safe?David Yu, Bend, OR

Originally the brainchild of Lebanese-born entrepreneur/inventor Nicolas Hayek of Swatch watch fame, Smart Cars are designed to be small, fuel-efficient, environmentally responsible and easy to park—the ultimate in-city vehicle. Back in 1994, Hayek and Swatch signed on with Daimler-Benz (the German maker of the venerable Mercedes line of cars) to develop the unique vehicle; in fact, the company name Smart is derived from a combination of the words Swatch, Mercedes and “art.”

High Fuel Prices Drive Demand for Smart Cars
When initial sales were slower than hoped for, Hayek and Swatch pulled out of the venture, leaving Daimler-Benz as full owner (today, Smart is part of the Mercedes car division). Meanwhile, rising oil prices have driven up demand for Smart vehicles, and the company began selling them in the U.S. earlier this year.

Smart Cars’ Small Size More Impressive Than Their Fuel Efficiency
Measuring just a hair over eight feet long and less than five feet wide, the company’s flagship “ForTwo” model (named for its human carrying capacity) is about half the size of a traditional car. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates the car’s fuel efficiency at 33 miles per gallon (mpg) for city driving and 41 mpg on the highway (although actual drivers report slightly lower results). Three ForTwos with bumpers to the curb can fit in a single parallel parking spot.

U.S. Distributors Can’t Meet Demand for Smart Cars
And with soaring gas prices, the cars have been selling like hotcakes in the United States. The company’s U.S. distributor is working on importing an additional 15,000 cars before the end of 2008, as its initial order of 25,000 vehicles is almost depleted. Some four dozen Mercedes Benz dealers across the country have long waiting lists for new Smart vehicles, which sell for upwards of $12,000.

Smart Cars Earn Highest Safety Rating
As for safety, the ForTwo did well enough in crash tests by the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) to earn the group’s highest rating—five stars—thanks to the car’s steel racecar-style frame and liberal use of high-tech front and side airbags. Despite such good safety performance for such a tiny car, IIHS testers caution that larger, heavier cars are inherently safer than smaller ones.

Does Smart Car Benefits Justify the Cost?
Beyond safety concerns, some analysts bemoan the ForTwo price tag as unnecessarily high given what you get. The cars are not known for their handling or acceleration, although they can go 80 miles per hour if necessary. The website Treehugger.com suggests that eco-conscious consumers might do better spending their $12,000 on a conventional sub-compact or compact car, many of which get equivalent if not better gas mileage and are likely to fare better in a crash.

More Smart Cars May Be Coming to the U.S.
But for those who need a great in-city car for short errands and commutes, today’s ForTwo might be just the ticket. Environmentalists are hoping the higher mileage diesel version of the ForTwo, which has been available in Europe for several years, soon will be released in the United States. And they are keeping their fingers crossed for a hybrid version that could give the hugely successful Toyota Prius—which looks almost huge in comparison to the Smart car—a run for its money in terms of fuel efficiency and savings at the pump.

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