Are Smart cars smart? The pros and cons of microcars


[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

It’s no secret that I dislike automobiles, or rather Chicago’s over-dependence on them. Privately owned autos, especially big ones, contribute to all kinds of problems in our region, including traffic deaths, congestion, climate change, obesity and urban sprawl. Car parking gobbles up valuable land, with Chicago’s on-street parking alone occupying an area roughly the size of Hyde Park, not to mention the hundreds of acres used for parking lots. The first Mayor Daley carved up the city with expressways and allowed Louis Sullivan masterpieces to be razed for garages, and an eight-lane superhighway cuts off residents from one of our city’s greatest assets, the lake shore.

On the other hand, there are understandable reasons why Chicagoans might want to purchase an auto, as opposed to occasionally renting one or using a car-sharing service. These include long commutes to distant neighborhoods or suburbs that might be daunting by other modes, the ability to give rides to friends and family, the need to haul gear around town, road trips to Wisconsin and more. I do believe there’s such a thing as responsible car ownership, and it’s possible to include driving, along with walking, cycling, transit and cabs, in your toolbox of transportation modes.

But a large percentage of Chicago car trips involve only one or two occupants. So for those who feel they need to own a car, could two-seat “microcars” like the Smart car, a Mercedes-Benz product, help mitigate some of the harmful aspects of driving? These tiny vehicles, measuring about eight feet long by five feet wide, go against the grain of America’s traditional “bigger is better” mentality.

I recently caught a TV ad for the Smart showing politicians, businessmen, and a Beyoncé-like R&B diva extolling the virtues of “Big, big, big.” At the end of the spot, a young man gazes out a boardroom window, sees the miniature car pull up and exclaims with wide-eyed wonder, “Small!” followed by the tagline, “The space-saving, eco-friendly, totally unique Smart. Unbig. Uncar.”


Intrigued, last month I pedaled up to Loeber Motors, a Smart and Mercedes-Benz dealership in north-suburban Lincolnwood, for a test drive. When I get there, Bobby Becker, the mild-mannered salesman, escorts me to a sporty, red-and-black convertible. I settle into the cockpit-like seating area and take the car for a spin around the ‘burb. I’ll confess that the car is a blast to drive, with its go-kart-like handling and super-tight turning radius. With the top down, I’m caressed by the breeze as I cruise by a carnival in a nearby park and gaze at flags of many nations waving along Lincoln Avenue. And obviously the thing is a no-brainer to parallel park.

Afterward I sit down in the mod showroom with Becker to discuss the selling points and possible societal benefits of the two-seater. The basic Pure coupe model starts at about $14,400 while the Cabriolet convertible runs between $19,000-$22,000. Due to their relatively light weight and efficient engines, Smart cars get thirty-five to forty miles per gallon in the city and forty-four to forty-eight on the highway, about twice the mileage of a mid-size Mercedes, Becker tells me.


Bobby Becker.

The European version of the Smart, with a three-cylinder diesel engine, gets even better mileage than its American cousin, about seventy to seventy-five miles per gallon on the highway and in the mid-sixties in the city, Becker says. The diesel vehicles are not available in the states yet due to United States regulations, but he predicts the law will change soon and the diesel cars may arrive here in the next year or two. He adds that a full-electric version will be available by this winter with a ninety-five to 110-mile range per charge, estimating it will sell in the low-to-mid-$30,000 range.

Economic and environmental issues aside, are the cars practical and safe to drive on expressways and interstates? “You can drive ‘em anywhere you would drive a full-size car,” Becker says. “They have a top speed of ninety miles per hour. I’d hop in one right now and drive it to Southern California—no worries, no issues, no problems.”

He says the Smart received high safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety due to its innovative design. “On bigger cars you’ve got mass,” he says. “The Smart is essentially like driving a car with a giant roll cage around you.” Becker also agrees with my hypothesis that smaller, lighter cars pose less of a danger to pedestrians and people on bikes than big ones.


Smart car “roll cage.”

As for the Smart’s potential to reduce the amount of land paved over for parking, he says in Europe it’s common to see three of the microcars parked perpendicular to the curb in the space of one standard parallel parking space. “That’s part of the fun of the car, to have a minimal footprint,” he says. Unfortunately a Chicago ordinance prohibits parking cars perpendicular to the curb in a parallel spot.

For a different perspective I contacted Sharon Feigon, head of I-GO, the car-sharing company run by the local nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology, and a Grid Chicago sponsor. “Even though we’re a car-sharing service, our first approach to the problems of mobility and congestion is non-car strategies,” she says. “Smaller vehicles are not the solution, but I do think they’re a step in the right direction.”


Sharon Feigon at the I-GO holiday party last December.

I-GO’s roster of rental vehicles, about half of which are hybrid or electric, also includes the Fiat 500, another two-seat microcar. About the same size and gas mileage as a Smart, it starts at $15,500. “They’re very popular with our customers because they’re very efficient, they’re small and they’re cute,” she says.

“The main point is that we need to put a lot of effort into making sure people have a lot of transportation options so they don’t need to own cars,” Feigon concludes. “And if they do feel the need to own them, the best car is the most efficient one you can get.”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

33 thoughts on “Are Smart cars smart? The pros and cons of microcars”

  1. John – having driven one, would you feel safe on the expressway with it? I completely agree with the point that it’d be safer for pedestrians/cyclists, but safe in a collision with a Canyonero on the tollway somewhere in suburbia?

    1. It’s probably not the ideal car if you’re going to be doing a lot of long-distance or highway-speed driving, but it does have high crash test ratings and the roll cage principal seems to make sense. If I was going to own a car, I’d feel comfortable using a microcar for on-street city driving and occasional road trips on interstates.

      1. I saw a program where they crash tested the smart car at highway speeds into a cement barrier. The car was totalled beyond recognition. The driver may have sufferd a broken foot along with bruises, but would have survived. Really well buitl.

  2. While I certainly see the benefit of Smart cars vs. giant SUVs, they aren’t the solution to our auto-dependence problem. They still are dependent on fossil fuels, still pollute, and still contribute to sprawl. They are, after all, still a car – and at a starting price of $15,500, not much cheaper than a full-size auto.

    1. The Smart starts at $14,400. Becker says an all-electric model is coming out soon, so if you could find a sustainable source for the juice (I-GO’s electric charging stations are 100% solar powered – sounds far-fetched but trust me on this), that would remove the fossil fuel guilt factor. As for sprawl, the tiny footprint of microcars helps in this department. If all cars were replaced with microcars there would be less demand for parking lots.

        1. In the case of I-GO’s solar-powered electric car charging stations, all the electricity comes from the sun. I know it sounds impossible that they could get enough sunlight during the Chicago winter to do this, but Sharon Feigon told they put surplus electricity into an electric ComEd’s power grid during the summer and then get credits they can use during the winter.

          1. I think it would take a fairly large solar footprint to charge all the cars everyday. I am going to look into this. On a engineering level it seems like a lot of power especially when you consider most electric cars are recharged at night, increasing the load in a traditional down period of the grid. Even with a carbon credit, could we potentially see more carbon used? Emmisions from cars is lowered so that is a benefit. Just wondering where the use goes.

  3. I don’t think something has the be the solution in order to be a solution. There will be no catch-all for our fossil fuel dependence. It will take a lot of little steps, and something like a Smart Car will help a lot. I like the fuel consumption, and though I primarily use a car for extended road trips, the size doesn’t bother me. I drove a little ’95 Honda Civic to Alaska, after all. I don’t need much more space than a Smart Car offers.

    I have two concerns with them. One, even though the car is very rigid, I worry about the transfer of forces in a head-on collision with something much larger. I can’t help but think the momentum in such a collision would push the Smart Car backwards, resulting in greater net force on the Smart Car occupants. Head-ons are rare, though. My second concern is simply a personal issue with Mercedes, which isn’t know for reliability. I wouldn’t buy one new … I prefer going the 10-year-old Honda route.

  4. While sufficient most of the time, sometimes you need more than two seats or a bigger cargo area. May make sense as a second car, but not as your only car.

    1. I definitely don’t recommend owning two cars, at least in the city. If you need to own one car I’d suggest making car sharing or a cab (or transit, a bike trailer, etc.) your second car. That said, if someone like me was to own a car a microcar might be a good choice since I’d rarely need to transport more than one passenger or carry a whole lot of gear.

        1. Right. I think in many cases even families with kids might be able to get by fine using transit, cabs, car sharing or biking as their “second car.” After all, many of my friends with kids in Chicago don’t own a car at all. Several of these families took a road trip to the Indiana Dunes last weekend with their kids. It was a fun demonstration of all the ways to transport young children by bike. They used Burley trailers, baby seats, trail-a-bikes, a tandem and an Xtracycle! Although they were probably smart to leave their Dutch box bikes at home…

    1. They make a gas version because battery technology just isn’t there yet. It’d probably be fine for an in-town runabout car, but the range on most electrics is just so low right now as to make them be not terribly useful. Give battery technology a few more years and this will likely change

      1. I-Go has several electric cars for their members to use. Each has a range of almost 100 miles. An issue is that members don’t always charge them when they park the cars, and there’s not always enough time in between each member’s use of the cars to get a decent charge.

    2. M-B operates a car-sharing system in San Diego with a fleet of 300 electric Smart cars. I hope they have a better-performing motor than the electric Smart that I once drove.

      1. Car2Go has a Smart car fleet in Portland (I don’t recall which fuel) and an electric Smart car fleet in Amsterdam. The cars don’t have a home base, and can be left anywhere in the service zone.

  5. John, please explain how a 1700 lb. vehicle traveling at 25 Mph is going to significantly less-injure a pedestrian or cyclist than if your average 3000 lb. is involved.

    You wrote, “Economic and environmental issues aside, are the cars practical and safe to drive on expressways and interstates?” Your preface to this question, leaving economics and environment out of the evaluation, makes your question seem flawed and irrelevant. It is akin to asking, “Legal and moral issues aside, are guns practical to use in resolving conflict”? Economics and environmental are arguably the top factors to consider when evaluating transportation options.

    Economically-speaking, a car is a terrible investment. It loses value quickly and consistently through its lifetime, and requires a big upfront commitment followed by a stream of significant maintenance costs. Oh, and then there are the on-going registration, fuel, insurance costs. New cars cost around $7,000 per year, assuming they are financed, as most new cars are.

    Environmentally-speaking, the majority of smart cars–for the foreseeable future–will continue to burn fossil fuels. Even the very creation of a smart car, or any new car, results in a lot of fossil fuel consumption. Smart cars can also easily be a part of traffic congestion, just as any car. And to my first question, I believe they can still can injure or even kill pedestrians and pedal-cyclists just about like any other car.

    Yes, smart cars take less road space than today’s average cars. Yay. And if we champion baby steps towards addressing today’s transportation problems, we’ll be old people before we see any real change. I say, lets grow up today by out-growing car ownership.

    1. I’m just addressing the weight/mass question. I don’t believe this has any or much influence on the outcome of a collision with a pedestrian. The only significant factor is speed (and maybe car body design, if Volvo has anything to say in the matter).
      Speeds in our cities must be lowered, not purely by lowering the speed limit, but through different road designs that help to prevent high speeds, and through better enforcement.

    2. To answer your first question, it’s common sense that a vehicle weighing about half as much (most references on the Internet I’m finding put the Smart at 1,600 pounds) as a standard car would do less damage. The low profile of microcars means it’s more likely a ped or cyclist would go over a hood in a crash than under the grill – the opposite is true with an SUV. And because microcars don’t provide the false sense of security larger vehicles do, Smart owners are more likely to be more cautious drivers.

      When I wrote, “Economic and environmental issues aside,” I meant, “Having already touched on price and fuel efficiency, let’s talk about safety and practicality.” But, of course, I returned to the issue of land use later in the article and got another perspective from the head of I-GO.

      True, car ownership is more expensive than living car-free, but I believe that $7,000 figure is highly inflated – it includes paying for a monthly downtown parking spot, for example. Anyone readers remember where that figure came from?

      Microcars do help a bit with congestion. Since they’re about half the length of a standard car, more of them can drive on a given length of roadway. If all single-occupancy cars were replaced with Smart cars for example, CDOT might be able to get away with removing travel lanes from arterial streets to make room for bike lanes, without impacting car travel times.

      As I wrote, there are understandable reasons to want to own a car. Even in bike paradises like Copenhagen and Amsterdam people still drive. So rather than demonizing car ownership altogether, I think it makes more sense to encourage the trend towards smaller, more fuel-efficient cars for those who want/need to own them, while simultaneously promoting car sharing and more sustainable travel modes.

    3. It’s simple physics. A 3,000-lb vehicale traveling at 25 mph with carry 15,200 N*s of momentum, which it will transfer to anything it hits. Reduce the mass to 1600 lbs, and momentum drops to 8,100 N*s, or the same momentum the larger vehicle carries at 13 miles per hour. Basically, any pedestrian involved in a wreck with a Smart car will endure half the force and be twice as likely to survive.
      As John said, your cost of car ownership is grossly exaggerated, and is dependent on the conceit that people buy new. I buy 10-year-old Hondas. Since 2005, my annual cost, including maintenance, insurance and fuel, has been in the neighborhood of a thousand dollars. Further, I don’t look at the purchase of a car as an investment. A car is a consumable, not an asset. You buy it to use it, and you use it until it’s gone.
      While you may be old before you see any real change by championing baby steps, you’ll be long dead before you see significant portions of America embrace your car-free Utopia. Baby steps will accomplish far more than pie-in-the-sky dreams.

      1. John, BlueFairlane, I understand physics. My point is, reducing the momentum in half (to 8,000 N*s, if you will) isn’t going to result in half the injury. This is where your logic is flawed. Humans don’t injure in such mathematical, precise ways. 1500 lbs impacting at 25 Mph into your feeble flesh and bones is still going to cause serious injury, make no mistake. Our bodies cannot withstand that sort of impact. Is it better to be hit by a smart car traveling at 25 Mph than an SUV, yes. How much better? Not significantly, in my opinion.

        Regarding the average annual cost of car ownership, I pulled that $7K figure from looking at a handful of on-line sources. AAA estimates it at just under $9K ( I’ll take my sourced data over your anecdotal any day.

        RE: “you’ll be long dead before you see significant portions of America embrace your car-free Utopia”
        $10 gasoline is coming in my lifetime, so say the experts I’ve read. It will be a game-changer for significant portions of America. The change has already begun. New car sales and miles driven are on downward trends, and fewer newly eligible drivers are getting their licenses.

        I’d rather live and speak the change I seek in the world than quietly accept an insufficient response to global and local problems. Calling this “Utopia” allows you to say to yourself it impossible and therefore not worth personally reaching for. I say, drop the fairy tale language and accept responsibility for your role in our world’s energy and pollution problems. Driving is drilling.

        1. If you understand physics, perhaps you’ll understand this study on the NIH page … I’ll take my sourced data over your opinion any day.

          Meanwhile, your AAA estimates are flawed, in that they use the most expensive options for car ownership (buying new), and then they count the same money twice by including depreciation in their figures. Again, a car is not a house. You are not investing in an asset you expect to hold value. You are spending money on a convenience. If I spend $3500 on a 10-year-old Honda, I do not expect to ever see any of that again. So subtracting a portion of that $3500 I’ve already spent again is simply double dipping.

          Finally, I think your $10/gallon estimate in your lifetime is low. We’ll probably see that and higher within five years. But will that be a game-changer? I used to say $4/gallon would be a game-changer, but when it happened, people grumbled about it, then kept on spending. The automobile is firmly entrenched in the American psyche, so when $10 gas comes, people will grumble, some small number will drive a little bit less, but in the end they’ll fork it over.

          Meanwhile, you should remind yourself that drilling is much more than driving. Virtually every aspect of modern life, from the clothes you wear to the electricity that powers these pixels is drilling. Your view is that a vehicle that uses less isn’t worth consideration, because it doesn’t use nothing. I could reply by saying your urge to eliminate cars is useless because we’d still be hooked on oil. Perfection, as they say, is the enemy of the good. So you can hold out for perfection all you want. It won’t happen.

          1. Cite where in your NIH study that it says vehicle mass is *directly proportional* to injury, even even close to. I’m not saying the effect isn’t reduced (with a lighter car), I’ve been saying that it isn’t a *significant* reduction, and certainly not directly proportional (you & John argue that a vehicle 1/2 the size will deliver 1/2 the injury, which I disagree with). For now, I’ll stand by what Steven also said, that vehicle velocity is a greater factor on human injury/damage than vehicle weight.

            We can agree that buying a used car significantly lowers the annual cost of car ownership (as well as the environmental effect by stretching the carbon impact of the used car’s construction cost), and kudos to you for doing such. But John’s article isn’t about used car ownership, its about purchasing a new “smart car”. Spending $15,000+ on a new “smart car” is the equivalent of not investing $15,000 (where your money can earn interest). This is a signficant amount of money, and the cost of tying-it up in a depreciating investment is important to recognize when calculating the cost of car ownership. If you didn’t spend the $15K (assuming you had this in cash), you’d very likely be earning at least the rate of a CD or Money Market. You certainly wouldn’t be losing value on your $15K. And if you financed $15K for a business venture, you’d be doing so with the intention of seeing a return on that investment. No public transit, car-sharing membership, or bike ownership comes close to requiring this amount of initial investment, so these three forms cannot be seen as significant sums of money not invested.

            I’m not arguing for a car-less world. You’ve misconstrued my argument. John’s article is about rationalizing the “smart car” as a best case new car ownership option. I’m arguing that ownership of a new “smart car”, or any new car, is a bad idea in the grand scheme, for economic and environmental reasons.

  6. i’m not sure smart cars make sense for bike commuters. even when given ride to the grocery store, i don’t buy more than what i can haul on my bike. i have car-driving friends in the suburbs, but they drive into the city maybe twice a year and i can see myself driving out there the same amount. most of my city friends don’t own a car. on the other hand, if you already own a car, it would make sense to drive a smaller car. most single people use their car to get themselves to and from work. is it really necessary to pay for gas to power a car that has 4 passenger capacity?

  7. Grid Chicago’s first sentence to its mission: “Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters”

    Are “smart cars” sustainable transportation? Will we be seeing more “green” automobile model reviews in Grid Chicago’s future? I hear Lexus has a new hybrid SUV that has a dashboard computer which calculates the number of trees you’ve saved per mile.

    1. That’s the question this article tries to answer, “Are Smart cars sustainable transportation?” I basically came to the same conclusion as Sharon: the goal is to provide many transportation options so that as many people as possible people don’t need to own cars. But inevitably some people are going to want/need to own cars, and those people should buy the most efficient (size and fuel-wise) models available..

      I hardly think that an article that begins “It’s no secret that I dislike cars” can be viewed as an endorsement of car ownership.

  8. The safest accident is the one you don’t get into. Large SUVs may feel safer and protect occupants better than small cars in the event of a crash, but they tend to be less nimble than small cars and have longer stopping distances, which make “accidents” harder to avoid. So there is a theory that while SUV occupants may survive more crashes, they get into more crashes in the first place. Keith Bradsher’s “High & Mighty” is a good primer on all of this.

    That says nothing about the overall environmental benefits of Smart cars, which is arguably negligible, but there is certainly an economic benefit to all of the accidents drivers of small cars do not get into.

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