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Is the 'Smart Car' really smart?

By Jack Ward
web posted September 10, 2007

Years ago the political joke was "I'm from the government and I'm here to help". Now the joke is "I'm from the government and I'm here to save you". The government has gone from help mode to save mode. I can't recall when government made the transition but it has been in full force for several decades. I first realized it when the government started to save us from smoking. The first smoking regulations seemed reasonable but now in some areas you can't smoke in your own business. Seat belt and helmet regulations appeared soon after. I'm a great believer in using seat belts and I think folks that ride a motorcycle are crazy if they don't wear a helmet. But why does government need to mandate it? The simple answer is that politicians believe that it is their duty to save us from ourselves.

Government continues to venture into mandating our means of transportation. The political mantra is to conserve fuel. Our political representatives are considering mandating that the American public drive hyper-efficient cars and trucks, even if it means these vehicles will be less safe. By increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards from 27 miles per gallon to 35 mpg, the manufactures will be forced to produce more micro-cars and fewer mid-size and full size sedans, trucks, vans, and SUVs to meet the fleet requirement.

Remember the station wagon?

Previous CAFE standards led to the end of the station wagon and the birth of the popular SUV. Station wagons were categorized as cars and because they were bigger, heavier and required larger engines it was impossible to meet the CAFE standards for the manufacturer's passenger car fleet. But the public weren't interested in a micro-car they wanted a vehicle that could carry the family. American ingenuity came to the rescue and by using a truck chassis, the SUV was born. The SUVs were born out of necessity and has become the hottest selling vehicles. The SUV satisfies the consumer's desires but satisfying consumers has irritated the environmental extremists. To these people, the freedom to buy what you want is not as important as saving some mythical bird, bug, reptile, rodent or weed.

Smart CarThe prototypical micro-car envisioned by Congress is the tiny two-seat Smart car. The Smart 'fortwo' is just 8.8 feet long and slightly wider and taller than 5 feet. The standard 'fortwo' is powered by a three-cylinder 700cc engine and you can get air conditioning, MP3 capability and a six-disc CD changer. At 1,700 pounds it is already one of the smallest cars on any road in any country. If you haven't seen a Smart, imagine a Honda Civic cut in half.

The Smart is reminiscent of other micro-cars like the 1937-1952 Crosley, the 1950 era BMW Iseta, Fiat 500 and Nash Metropolitan, and the late 60s Honda 600 and Renault 4CV. All of these micro-cars never really caught on with the public since they couldn't carry a family in comfort and they weren't suitable for long trips.

But now the micro-car will be given a new life by mandated legislation. You may have to make several trips to take the soccer team to practice, but our politicians know best. You may have to forgo that cross country trip with the family, but you can watch the Travel Channel and save lots of gas.

While the Smart will meet the CAFE standards it hasn't been subjected to the required crash tests yet. The current full size sedans are about twice as long and heavy as the Smart so while the Smart might be nice for going to the grocery store it will put you at a significant disadvantage if involved in an accident. Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reminded us that "the laws of physics can't be repealed." "Even with modern safety features like multiple air bags, people in small, light cars are always at a disadvantage in crashes."

So the question that remains to be answered is can our political representatives successfully force drivers to buy the Smart or other similar cars? History tells us no. So will drivers keep their cars longer? The auto industry depends on people buying a new car every few years. When people quit buying new cars regularly the automobile industry will eventually collapse. But I can't wait to see our politically elite loading their entourage into a micro-limo. ESR

(c) 2007 Jack Ward


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