Micro car causes big buzz

You might see one of these on the road and do a double take.

Smart Fortwo cars have arrived on the scene, signaling, perhaps, a coming wave of automotive evolution. While lumbering, dinosaurlike SUVs still rule the roads, more and more of these novelties scoot about like small, early mammals.

They aren't the most fuel-efficient autos around, getting 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the highway. (By comparison, a Toyota Prius hybrid clocks in at 48 mpg in the city and 45 on the highway.)

Still, some car aficionados say they have an undeniable European panache.

Drivers who reserved one of the 8-foot 8-inch long micros months ago are now getting theirs from the factory, a Mercedes-Benz facility in France.

Many are not small-is-better environmentalists, but car collectors like Larry Garuti, 61, of Seminole. He owns 15 vehicles, including a classic Mustang, a Corvette, a Lincoln Mark VIII and a Ford GT.

Although he can choose from any in the stable, "I drive the Smart car nearly every day,'' he said.

"I kind of like it,'' said Garuti, owner of a communications business. "It's very nimble, it's responsive. You don't feel like you're in a small car.''

In six weeks, he has put 1,400 miles on the car. Once he kicked it up briefly to 87 mph — 3 mph shy of the vehicle's 90 mph top speed — on the Bayside Bridge and experienced no problems.

The only safety issue seems to be caused by gawkers trying to have a look.

"I have people who roll down their window on the freeway to talk to me,'' said Carl Bergman of Valrico, who took delivery of his Smart Fortwo — or "smart fortwo," as the company prefers — about a week ago. (The company markets the car's name in lowercase letters, taking the carmaker's commitment to being small even to typography.)

One day, a state trooper nearly got into a wreck with Bergman, who owns Bergman's European Autoworks in Brandon, on an interstate while trying to take a photo of the car.

Thomas Wilkins, 34, also has had a run-in with the law over his new Fortwo.

"I had two police officers in Palm Harbor flag me down,'' he said. They said "they just wanted to see the car. They were curious. You can't blame them.''

Wilkins, an insurance consultant who lives in Palm Harbor, took delivery of his blue and silver Smart Fortwo on March 1. He has put 2,600 miles on it.

He owns three other cars — a Mercedes, a BMW and a Toyota SUV — but prefers the Smart.

"My friends think I'm nuts,'' he said. "But the Smart car meets 97 percent of my needs.''

He wouldn't take the Fortwo camping, but Wilkins, who is 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 265 pounds, said he has more headroom in his Smart car than in his Mercedes SL550.

But it takes longer to get anywhere.

He said he has to "allow 15 minutes extra'' every day just to talk to people who stop him on the street to ask about his car.

Mitchell and Jeri Kanaan of St. Petersburg picked up their Fortwo on Thursday and put 50 miles on it right away.

"It feels like a big car when you're inside,'' said Jeri Kanaan. 68. "From the outside, it looks like a little toy car.''

It helps that the driver and occupant are surrounded by a reinforced steel safety cell. Pamela Daniel, a sales representative for Smart Center Clearwater, said she hears questions about safety from quite a few people who come to take a test drive.

"They say, 'What happens to me if I get hit by an 18-wheeler?' '' she said. "I tell them, 'The same thing as any other car.' ''

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the car four out of five stars in the front-end crash test on the driver's side. On the passenger side, it got three out of five stars.

There is one big downside: If you order a Smart Fortwo, you will wait a year to get it.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

About Smart cars

• Dimensions — 8 feet, 8 inches long, 5 feet, 1 inch wide and 5 feet tall

• Top speed — 90 mph

• Gas mileage — 33 miles per gallon city, 41 highway

• Cost — $12,235 to $18,875

• Origin — Made in Hambach, France, by Mercedes-Benz.

You can test drive a Smart car at Lokey Automotive's Smart Center Clearwater, 19820 U.S. 19 N. Call (727) 530-1661.

Micro car causes big buzz 04/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 9:39am]

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