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Published: Monday, 10/12/2009

Smart Car gets grins, great mileage in Toledo

BY ROBERTA DE BOER
BLADE COLUMNIST
Wayne Anthony stops his Smart Car on Superior Street downtown. The car measures 104 inches long. 
Wayne Anthony stops his Smart Car on Superior Street downtown. The car measures 104 inches long.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

We drove around Toledo, bright sunshine splashing in through the oversized moon roof, and watched the head of nearly everyone we passed swivel around to stare at us.

"Ohhhh," I said to Wayne Anthony, who was behind the wheel, "so this is what it feels like to be famous!"

Wayne laughed politely, but he's quite used to the staring, the finger-pointing, the questions. And the smiles!

Lesson No. 1: If you drive a Smart Car Fortwo - a line of teeny-weeny autos well-known in Europe but only released in the United States this year - if you drive one of these babies, most people who stare also break out into smiles.

Of course, the car's chipper, upward-swooping design makes it look as if it smiled at you first. Yes, this car is cute as a kitten. One look and you say, "Awww!" After riding around with Wayne, the novelty of being pointed at began to wear off after only a few miles, so much attention does this abbreviation of an automobile provoke.

(Full disclosure: Journalists aren't supposed to write about friends. Wayne is my friend. I would not ordinarily columnize about a friend, but Wayne's the only person I know who owns a Smart Car - the first one in Ohio and 22nd in the nation, according to his Michigan-based dealer. Anyone who sees a Smart Car immediately wants to know what it is and whether they can pet it. If you've seen this vehicle around town, you're curious, so I turn to Wayne but am obliged to tell you we're amigos.)

OK, the Smart Car.

Bumper to bumper, it's 104 inches long. I have shoes bigger than that. A Cadillac Escalade, by comparison, measures nearly 223 inches long. You could probably stuff a Smart Car in an Escalade glove box, but your mileage would suffer - and mpg is what it's all about. Well, that and cute.

Wayne took delivery on this Mer-cedes offshoot in January, when oil prices first topped $100 per barrel. He now has cocktail-party bragging rights about a single tank of gas (capacity: 8 gallons) that lasts up to 10 days (40 mpg on the highway).

When he tried to get an insurance quote on it, Wayne recalled, "it was so new nobody knew what the numbers should be."

Like many Smart Car buyers, Wayne and his partner/co-car owner, Ric Archer, first saw these in Europe.

"We fell absolutely in love with it," said Wayne, waving cheerily at yet another finger-pointing pedestrian as we zipped along Bancroft Street. "The day they announced they'd be available in the U.S., we signed up immediately online."

Even with no nationwide advertising campaign, Wayne's name sat parked for one year on a U.S. waiting list of some 30,000 others. Merely test-driving a Smart Car, he said, required a $99 reservation: "If you still liked it after you test-drove it, you proceeded. If not, you got your money back." Is this not the stuff of Detroit's nightmares?

For about $15,500, Wayne's cartoonish Smart Fortwo Passion coupe feels surprisingly roomy inside. It's easy to forget you're in a rolling shoebox - until you get out again, and notice there's really no back end to this car.

The Smart Car s ignition is at the driver s side, by the gearshift. The U.S. waiting list for the car grew to some 30,000.
The Smart Car s ignition is at the driver s side, by the gearshift. The U.S. waiting list for the car grew to some 30,000.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

"I pulled up next to some guy in a pickup truck once , and after we got the green light he leaned out and screamed, 'Hey, man! Where's the rest of your [expletive deleted] car!' "

There's an amusing YouTube video of a squad of English cheerleaders breaking a Guinness World Record by cramming 14 limber teammates into one Smart Car (a la college kids and the old Volkswagen Beetle decades back), which prompts me only to say: Ah, youth

As for Wayne, he's been asked if 20 Shriners pile out of his car when he stops, which is just another way to say he rolls in a clown car from the circus.

Clown car. Toy car. Rolling shoe box. Whatever - they're sought after. Earlier this month, this line of cars landed on forbesautos.com's "Most Coveted" list. With wait times for American orders ranging between nine and 13 months, the patience and desire of Smart Car buyers compare roughly with those ordering Aston Martins or Bugattis.

Probably not many of those around Toledo, either.

Oh, and one final note: Wayne, I offered (but forgot) to reimburse you the gasoline cost of our drive-around-aimlessly afternoon. I apologize, and will put a couple of quarters in the mail right away.



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