Just after 5 p.m. last Wednesday, St. Paul Street in Burlington was jammed with station wagons, SUVs and trucks. One white pickup whizzed by pulling a cigarette boat the size of a spacious backyard porch. Then, during a lull in traffic, 34-year-old Debbie Safran piloted her brilliant yellow Smart car into the fray.
At 5.1 by 8.8 feet, a Smart car looks like a contraption you might ride at an amusement park. But a few months ago, after selling for years in Europe and Canada, Smart cars entered the U.S. market. With gas getting pricier by the day, is Burlington a new hotbed of miniaturized, easily parkable personal transport?
Hardly. While Safran’s smart USA dealer in Latham, New York, says she doesn’t know how many cars have been sold to Vermonters, Safran herself estimates that her vehicle is one of only a “handful” tooling around Chittenden County. She bought it in April to replace a 14-year-old Saturn.
More than 900,000 Smart cars have been sold worldwide since 1998, when they first began rolling off production lines in France. Thanks to a branding campaign that bills the vehicles as stylish and environmentally friendly urban-lifestyle accoutrements, they have graced the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the July 2007 “Live Earth” concerts for climate change. The U.S. branch of the Mercedes-Benz-owned company, smart USA, is headquartered in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a wealthy suburb of Detroit.
Tom Denecker, owner of Denecker Chevrolet in Vergennes, bought a black Smart convertible in April after spending two years on a waiting list. He uses the car as an “advertising piece.” Sure enough, Denecker reports, pedestrians “go crazy every place I stop.”
Since smart USA doesn’t have a Green Mountain dealership, Vermont owners have to schlep three hours to Latham for repairs. Denecker doesn’t mind — he tinkers with his rig in-house. But Safran, who works for a market research firm in Burlington, admits the procedure is a minor pain.
Smart cars are plagued by a host of shortcomings, according to a recent New York Times review. The Times claims the car’s storage, handling and fuel-economy capabilities are puny. Safran’s gets 45 miles per gallon, slightly less than a Toyota Prius. Still, Safran points out, the $11,590 base price of her so-called “smart fortwo pure” is cheaper than the $21,500 you’d shell out for the Toyota hybrid. And despite its size, this Smart car is roomy enough to fit the petite Safran, her boyfriend and the largest of their three dogs.
If anything, Safran worries that her Smart car is too tiny to be noticed by passing cars and trucks on her commute to and from Starksboro. “I’m not a terribly showy person,” she said while cruising through downtown Burlington. “But I also don’t like to get into car accidents.”
Safran’s boyfriend, a “car guy” who owns a 1975 Corvette, has been enthusiastic from the start about her half-sized ride. He has borrowed it, on occasion, to drive himself and his goalie equipment to hockey games at Cairns Arena in South Burlington. Now he’s thinking of buying his own.
Safran herself is content with her mini whip, though she might ask a Smart technician to replace its bright-yellow body panels with less flashy substitutes. On the smart USA website, she recalled, the car “didn’t look quite as bright as it actually is.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Reinventing the Wheels"