Remember when the Mini Coopers first hit the scene and we all thought they were so tiny and cute? I wanted to go up to every one I saw and just pinch it’s adorable little fender. Well, move over Mini, because now there’s something even more miniature: the Smart Car. These are manufactured by German company, DaimlerChrysler, but actually produced in France. They arrived in the U.S. almost exactly one year ago. One of the first ones to hit town was even displayed at the MOMA. Now, these super small vehicles are starting to speckle the Upper East Side like so many colorful polka dots.
It’s hard to describe how small these vehicles are. They’re wallet-sized. It almost seems as if they could fit in your back pocket. They’re like Vespas with roofs. Of course, since they’re only about 100 inches long, they require very little space (say, about 102 inches) to park. Think about that parking space you recently failed to fit into: a Smart Car owner pulled into it with room to spare. Or that one you passed up because your inner calculator told you to not even bother? Smart Car, no problem.
The best is when they’re parked at the very end of the block. Drivers in any other car wouldn’t even consider those unused inches right before the crosswalk starts. Smart Cars pull in there all the time, almost as if they’re perching, or crouching inconspicuously, in a game of parking hide and seek.
I caught up with Smart Car owners Anna Kepe and Jonathan Haas who got theirs this September and confirmed that, indeed, a car this size makes parking remarkably easy, especially in Manhattan. Besides, Kepe says, “It gets great gas mileage and is totally adorable.”
Because these cars are relatively new, they’re still causing a bit of stir on the street. People stop in their tracks to marvel and coo. In fact, walking by Kepe and Haas’ yellow Smart Car on 75th one day, I noticed a father and young daughter staring at it and giggling as if it were a puppy. Haas says that sometimes he gets spontaneous high fives. Kepe told me that people have even asked, “if they could hug the car. And doormen want to take the car inside the building.”
I first saw cars of this size in Italy. This petite sizing is more standard throughout Europe, but here in the U.S., where, for decades, people have been relying on cars to provide them with status and largesse as much as transportation, the Smart Car is a tougher sell. As Kepe says, “There are people who think that a real car must be BIG.”
Environmentalists of course contend that the solution to a lot of our problems isn’t necessarily just smaller cars on the road, but less of them. I agree. Even so, many of us city dwellers still need a car (I know, up for debate), either because we transport an unwieldy number of items (me) or current public transportation doesn’t yet get us where we need to go (me, again). In these cases, the Smart Car, or something like it, is obviously the “smarter” way to go, rather than say, the heinously large Hummer. For the record, I’m itching to see these two parked beside one another: an old gas-guzzling rhinoceros next to a sprightly hummingbird.
Smart Cars may be small, but they’re mighty. Haas, who is a drummer, claims you can fit more into them than you’d think. “I used to own a van. I have filled the Smart Car with tons of drums, less than the van, but with the roof down, we can get the drums high.” And he says that it actually handles pretty well in the snow and ice, once you get used to it.
Ever since I started seeing these on the street, even my little “compact” car has begun to seem oversized. When it finally expires, I’ll donate what parts of it I can, sprinkle the ashes in a dump then maybe I’ll head over to Smart Center Manhattan, located on the Upper West Side. Then, let the parking party begin.