Friday, August 18, 2006

Smart Car : The Linux of Automobiles

We rented a Smart Car, FourTwo. Not just any but the peppy cabriolet variant. We had imagined that a Smart car could be a fabulous addition to our fabulous lives. These are tiny, intended for two passengers. They are legendarily good on fuel. They are easy to park. That about ends their good points.

The Smart Car has a clutchless standard transmission. A plus and a minus intimate higher and lower gears. Gone is the clutch grind when you ride the clutch. Gone is chance of jumping from 1 to 3; 2 to 4. In its place, the transmission makes you guess when its in Neutral and Reverse. You think you’re in gear, but nuh-uh. You have to guess as you drift in the wrong direction. As side effect of this: rollback. You have as much chance for rollback as with a true standard.

We rented it, took it away and stopped it to show it off to others in the family. Then we tried to restart it. No go. The gear indicator flashed a key symbol. The manual made no note of what this meant. So, after much frustration, we phoned the dealership. This was a security feature. If the car was shut off for more than five minutes, you need to toggle the alarm on the remote to de-immobilize the ignition. What good is that? If you’re using the keys to start the car, you have what you need to de-immbolize the starter.

The model we tried out was big on vibration. Gear shifting happened sometime after you shifted gears. Every so often the car would gear shift for you. The creature comforts found in other cars were absent: no air conditioning; the “fan” has all of the power of a five year old blowing through a pixie straw; the stereo is drowned out by the engine noise. Some of the symbols are cryptic. Some are explicit—like the real temperature scale on the engine temperature.

In the city, it rattled and jerked. As a commuter car on short hops, it failed. On the highway, its pluses showed themselves. It was a smoother ride until I stuck my hand out of the open roof. That threw off the aerodynamics so much so that it made it difficult for the driver to control. Because of its small size, it is a flea on a road full of SUVs. This became very apparent when a Purolator delivery truck (BC plates: 4231 JK) changed into our lane and almost ran us off of the road. Did he not see our small profile or was he a lousy driver?

I call the Smart Car, “the Linux of Automobiles.” Similar to the computer operating system: this vehicle has non-standard features; it’s compact; it’s inexpensive; it’s perplexing; it’s low on frills; it’s seems cool, handy and alienating at the same time. I’ve often said that Windows users use their computers; Linux users are hobbyists. I feel the Smart Cars appeal to people who would rather own a Smart Car than use and enjoy a car.

Would I buy one of these? No. Would I take one for free? Yes. Would I trade in an icy cold, refreshing can of Coca-Cola to obtain a Smart Car? No way.


At 8/23/2006 7:02 PM, Blogger Tim said...

My guess is that they'll get better before sweet light crude hits USD $100. Next year.


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