If you were cruising through West Village on May 26, you couldn't have missed the Smart car test drive, where dozens lined up to try out the new electric version of the petite Smart car, which goes on sale this summer.
Manufactured under the wing of Mercedes, Smart cars were first introduced in Europe in 1998, then came to the United States in 2008. At a time when cars were getting bigger and not smaller, the Smart car seemed as alien as a flying saucer.
But there's definitely a market, with an estimated 40,000 Smart car drivers in the United States, says Tim Fellows, organizer of the DFW Smart Car Club.
Acceleration is the electric Smart car's strong point; its top speed is rated at 78 mph.
"There were about 15,000 Smart cars in the U.S. in 2008, and approximately 5,000 new Smart cars are purchased every year," Fellows says.
Smart cars have also inspired knock-offs such as the Toyota Scion iQ, Fiat 500 and the Nissan Leaf.
Its total length is just over 8 feet — half as long as a typical SUV. Their size makes them ideal for inner-city areas; in a wide-open state like Texas, a common reaction to smaller cars is concern about safety. But Smart emphasizes its cage-like steel shell, which has received positive safety ratings in crash tests.
The car is a two-seater with no back seat, but on the test drive, the front seat felt roomy. It may look small on the outside, but from the driver's seat, the Smart car felt no different from a regular car. What was surprising was how much zip the car had on takeoff, bolting right out of the West Village parking lot. That acceleration is its strong point; its top speed is rated at 78 mph.
A Smart car staffer rode shotgun during the test rides. When I asked mine if we could turn off the AC and roll down the windows instead, she said yes — then ended the test drive quickly. Meanwhile, I watched another test-drive car head over to the on-ramp to US 75.
It has two options for charging: a standard 110-volt socket or a 240-volt outlet, with an estimated charging time of 12 hours via the 110 V option or six hours with 240 V. A staffer said that a charge would last 90 miles.
Sold at Park Place Motors, the electric version costs $25,000, about twice the price of the regular gas-powered version, which is $12,500. The Smart car was originally envisioned as an electric car, and Mercedes estimates that a third of the Smart car sales will eventually be electric. A Park Place staffer said that the car appealed to a wide spectrum of customers but that owners tended to be male and not so young that their identity was invested in what they drove.