Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Smart Cars
Anyone who has traveled to Europe in the last several years has probably noticed the tiny Smart cars driving--and easily parking--in the Continent's most congested cities. They come in eye-catching colors and are even smaller than the popular Mini Cooper seen over here in increasing numbers. Last Friday the Smart hit the front page of the NY Times's "Escape" section, which described how enthusiasts are trying to acquire the car in advance of its 2005 rollout in the US.

Many times when I was trying to find a parking space in Manhattan or elsewhere I have wished I were driving one of these little cars, which were designed to fit three to the same parking space as a single Mercedes S-Class. But there were other times on Interstate 95, while being tailgated by an 18-wheeler going 65 and trying to go 75 right through my back seat, that I was glad I wasn't driving one. Clearly the Smart won't appeal to everyone, for every situation.

But I think that is the whole point. Here is a car that can meet a need for practical, economical transportation to the train station or generally around town, even if it's not the car you'd choose to drive from New York to D.C. Also noteworthy is that this car gets 60 miles per gallon without any of the fancy and costly technology of the hybrid cars or future fuel cell vehicles that I and others extoll.

When I see cars like the Mini and the Smart, I can't help wondering if they represent the next big trend in the auto world. Everyone focuses on SUVs now, fans and opponents alike. After all, they have been the hot trend for a decade. But the recent proliferation of extremely large, high-end SUVs such as the Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade, reminds me of the 1991 Buick Roadmaster station wagon, simultaneously the apex and last hurrah of the American station wagons that created the niche SUVs would later fill. Are we nearing that kind of tipping point, and is the Smart a sign of its arrival?

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