THE WILD, THE INNOCENT, AND THE PASSION CABRIOLET
Published on Thu, Jun 23, 2011
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Our Contributing Editor drives the Smart Passion Cabriolet and is blinded by the light (the car weighs but 1852 pounds) Story by Doug Stokes End words first … The nice young fellows from Smart only picked the car up a day ago, but I really miss that little beggar already. There are fun cars around, but this one was the funnest of recent memory. Silly and spectacularly impractical on so many levels. You mean like requiring 91 octane fuel? Yeah, that and the fact that the doors on this sawed-off little speedster are so wide (how wide are they?) that all of the advantage of its inherent narrowness is used up by the wingspan of the huge doors.
But, all of the above (and more) is no absolutely NO (none, zero, nada) issue when you’re driving a car that gets more smiles, winks, waves, head-scratches, peace signs, and thumbs-ups than any other of the close to 300 cars that I’ve review-driven over the past 20 years. This model was called the Passion and the name at first seemed a joke … It ended up being what the car honestly evoked. Since we’ve started at the end, let’s look at the price first (so you won’t be too surprised with the number 20, as in $20,060 which is what the sticker we got with this one bottoms out at. We will also note the EPA 33 (city) and 44 (highway) fuel economy estimate that sort of surprises as well.
Again, neither of the above is of much concern when driving this Smart. We’ll talk price later, but no one is really going drive this sort of a car very great distances on a regular basis. For sure, this is not a commuter car in the Lancaster-to-Long Beach and back each day sense of the term. Of course Pasadena-to-Glendale might be just fine. Call it a “city car” if you like, we got this one out on the freeway for a quick trip from the Central Valley (that’s the San Gabriel Valley) out to a car show event honoring Steve McQueen at Boy’s Republic in Chino. In truth, McQueen would have loved this car, it’s just quirky enough to be cool and it certainly was pretty noticeable among the onsite herds of ersatz Bullitt Mustangs and “LeMans-look” Porsche 911’s. Holding my head high among the above automotive festoonery, I reminded myself that I was driving a German-designed (Daimler) that had a rear-mounted Japanese engine, a German 5-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission; deDion rear suspension (!); and that was assembled (we used to say “built”) in France in a city with a terribly Teutonic-sounding name: Hambach.
Did I mention that the motor was a motorcycle-ish 1,000cc, 3-cylinder, mill that belted out all of 70 horsepower and 68 pounds-feet of torque, running all that energy through a diabolical 5-speed automatic transmission? And that sticky, starchy gearbox was at first awful (indeed, my notes indicated that every upshift felt like one was driving over a giant sheet of flypaper), I actually thought the power drop was that the car was cold … after 20 or 30 miles (and the motor fully up to op temp) I started to figure out what the paddles were for: SHIFTING. If one actually anticipates each gear change flicks the little upshift paddle just then, one can cause this little machine dig out in fine fashion. Surprising many more “performance oriented” automobiles (even some that have more than six inches of car in front of your feet) was great fun. I’m not a fisherman, but I find myself liking the driving of small, sort of underpowered automobiles to fishing with light tackle. I won’t blow off a Corvette Blue Devil drive if the editors want my opinion of one, but getting the most out of the least is good fun too. Passion occurs when you least expect it, with fun rolled on by the figuring out of the shifting theorem, enjoying the drive was a good thing.
Of course no one who even contemplates the purchase of a Smart is going to take any of the preceding two ‘graphs to heart. This car (while not a toy) is a perfect third or fourth car. The one that I’d get a better reception from some high-zoot Pasadena restaurant lot-jockey than if I had rolled up in a loaded Buick Lucerne. So, how’s the ride? So, how do you think a 73.5-inch wheelbase will ride? Let’s just say that you’ll know the exact condition of the road surface…intimately. Again, taken in the spirit of this fun/funny car, the high-strung jaunty ride is perfect and totally in character. Stand by for second motorcycle reference: Anytime that I drove this machine anywhere, and particularly when I ventured out onto the superslab, I drove it not as if I had stolen it, but as if I was on a bike. You must never relax when riding a motorcycle, danger is all around, and it will find you and it WILL hurt you. Driving a Smart, you’d be well-advised to remember the name of another sub-mini car company: TH!NK.
Asked the price (more often than the mileage) the $20K sticker number seemed like a shocker to most people, it could be allayed a bit by cycling the especially nice (very Daimler) automatic cabriolet roof. Up the car seemed as tight and solid as any, down it made for jaunty driving and the stout structure that’s still above our heads even when the cabrio top is at full open, was reassuring in a car with obliviously limited “crush zones”. Not a student’s back-to-school car, this car will be welcome in a college town, but much more so when driven by Doctor Stan Vandalay the, handsome, shy, charmingly out-of-touch, bachelor architectural history professor. Back to that 20K price tag for a minute here, the base price on the sticker is $17,690.00 and then came the magical “optional equipment” which includes something for $250 that is listed as “sliver metallic”. The paint, I guess. Then there is the “comfort package” at a staggering $950.00. The car was comfortable, but I got to wondering what $950.00 less “comfort” will feel like with this rather simple machine. The anti-theft alarm system adds only $200.00 to the tally, the cool dash-mounted clock and “rev counter” (we call it a tachometer) are $120.00, the armrest (which is not really all that restful, by the way) is $80.00, something called “Ambient Light” (their caps) is $190.00 and the center console storage box (?) is $30.00. The new thing is to content cars, not nickel and dime (or $950 and $190) the buyer to distraction. Hey, not with the Smart Passion. Optionality is the watchword here friends.
The price sheet make jokes (one of the headings on the features is: “Just plain cool”), claims that the car is 95 percent recyclable (perhaps they should consider a take-off on an old slogan: “… everything but the honk”), and prominently displays the new insurance institute letter code system, which I fearlessly predict, like the tire safety rating code, will be effortlessly disregarded by 99 percent of all potential Smart buyers (even if they’re buying it for their ditzy high school junior daughter or Goth-guy senior). Back to the start, I had as much fun DRIVING this car (and not just the being looked at part), the actual driving part. You’ll need to really check your motivation if you’re seriously thinking about buying one of these for personal use. Here’s an idea, why don’t half a dozen of us get together and lease one of these babies, that way we can each drive a smart for two months a year. I can live with that. Not as silly as it looks, but a whole lot funner than a lot of other machines whose practicality overpower the ownership experience. Compared to any of them, feature-to-feature, the Smart Passion loses. Taken as a whole, the Smart Car is not as much smart as it is unique. For more information about Smart products, go to: smartusa.com
SPECIFICATIONS Name of vehicle: 2011 Smart Passion Cabriolet Price: $17,690 (base) $20,260 (as tested), with optional paint, comfort package, anti-theft alarm, cockpit clock and rev counter, armrest, Ambient light, center console storage box. EPA fuel economy rating (miles per gallon) 33 city/41 highway Engine: 1000cc DOHC 12-valve in-line three Horsepower: 70 at 5800 rpm Torque: 68 pound-feet at 4500 rpm Drive configuration: Rear-wheel drive Suspension: Front independent McPherson struts Rear deDion suspension Wheels and tires: 15-inch alloy spoke wheels with 155/60R15 front and 175/60R15 rear all-season tires Dimensions Length: 106.1 inches Width: 61.4 inches Height: 60.7 inches Curb weight: 1852 pounds