Technology

The Downsized Dream Car

amsterdam—Anyone who has been in Europe any time over the past six years is certain to have encountered a tiny automotive experiment not much bigger than a desk chair, called the Smart Car (or smart car, as it appears in the official corporate logo). The result of a collaboration between the German automaker Mercedes and the Swiss watch company Swatch, the “smart car” has a 700-cc engine, gets twenty-two kilometres per litre, and at two-and-a-half metres long can be parked in a space small enough for a scooter. It seems to be not so much a vehicle as a statement, an attempt to redefine the relationship between the automobile and the urban environment. For a century the automobile, certainly in North America, has dictated the shape and design of cities, not the other way around, something I thought about one bright morning as I was nearly run down in mid-town Toronto by a Hummer. Cars so pervasively control everything from levels of noise, to pace of movement, to the very aesthetic of the streetscape that it is almost impossible to imagine a time before their existence.

Such a time there certainly was, though. In 1903, for example, the province of Ontario had only 178 registered automobiles, in contrast to 7.3 million vehicles today. It is likewise difficult to imagine what cities might look like now had different choices been made during the past hundred years, or perhaps if different choices were to be made even now. The “smart car,” replacing size with audacity, has stepped into that breach. Later this year, it will make its first appearance in North America outside Mexico, when it becomes available in Canada.

There have been small cars before, of course: the Mini from England, the Citroën Deux Chevaux from France, not to mention the famous Volkswagen Beetle. But though the “smart car” is tiny, it seems to inhabit a world beyond that of a simple car; in Europe it has become a phenomenon, a lifestyle statement, an item of fashion. Soon after its début in 1998, there were one hundred dealers in central and western Europe.

Today there are more than six hundred and fifty dealers worldwide, in Mexico, the Middle East, South Africa, and Japan. Last year, 124,000 “smart cars” were sold worldwide.

Wanting a closer (and an advance) look, I hunted up Smart Centre in the Amsterdam phone book and was soon on my way to the southern suburb of Snydersberg, just off the motorway leading to Rotterdam and The Hague. I was welcomed at the dealership by Anne-marie Markerink, a young, blonde sales rep, who produced a cappuccino and then escorted me through the showroom. We did the standard circling of the car, but when I asked if I could have a look at the motor – in the back and under a small lid that looked as though it might conceal the glove box – she frowned. “Most people don’t even ask about the engine,” she said. “They buy on impulse.” There were more important things to notice. She directed my attention to a board pinned with school-children’s drawings of friendly little anthropomorphic vehicles with front- fender eyes and happy smiles. A major aspect of the car’s “fun,” according to Markerink, is being able to change its appearance – a contribution from Swatch, which has made a name for itself with watches that have interchangeable faces and wristbands. All the panels of the “smart car” – front, side, and roof – are made of removable Plexiglas. So if you want to turn your red car into a green one, you can do so in about fifteen minutes by exchanging these panels.

When the time came to go for a spin, I confess that some trepidation set in. Actually heading out onto the road in something so tiny made me as nervous as I’d have been driving an eighteen-wheeler. But I took the key, remembering that the car was equipped with enough air bags to surround me, should anything go wrong, with a pillowed cloud.

Getting into the “smart car” is a bit like donning an overcoat – you feel as if you’re wearing it. I took a moment to get comfortable with the idea that my knees weren’t actually going to bump into stop signs and my feet weren’t going to drag on the pavement, then pulled the gearshift lever, looked over my shoulder, and prepared to reverse in order to get out of the parking spot – and realized I couldn’t possibly hit anything; the rear of the car was mere inches behind me. Markerink laughed, “Where you think there is something,” she said, “there is nothing.” I tooled around some streets local to the dealership. The drive had the feel of complete functionality – not quite the reckless thrill of a go-cart, but nowhere near the avuncular security of cruising in a standard North American family car. I felt a bit like being in my reading chair, but naked. A pedestrian waved.

A car does two things beyond simple conveyance. It becomes part of the aesthetic of the environment; and, at least at the junction of self-image and advertising, it becomes an extension of the personality of its owner. In this sense, both “smart car” and the Hummer are exaggerations. In mood they inhabit opposite poles: the “smart car” is the vehicular equivalent of wearing a jaunty scarf; the Hummer is like lugging around your entire wardrobe.

But each is a statement about the relationship between the automobile and the environment, especially the urban environment. North America appears to have given up that battle, waving the white flag to the oversized car. Europe has decided to fight back. Cities such as London and Strasbourg have successfully restricted automobile access to their centres. In this, the “smart car” tries to provide an antidote – responding to the limitations of the city, while satisfying the need for private transportation, and perhaps giving heart to forward-looking planners. One can only speculate about whether it will find a way to do that in North America.

Markerink boasted that it could go 140 kilometres an hour, but, I thought, passing by the on-ramp to the motorway, there’s no way you’d catch me testing that out.

Larry Krotz has written extensively for magazines and newspapers, including The United Church Observer.