The tank is half full.
That means it's half empty.
And that would be meaningless were it not that the tank holds only six gallons of diesel fuel in a car that gets 60.3 miles per gallon in the city and 75.9 miles per gallon on the highway.
It is a tiny car -- smaller than the Mini Cooper, smaller than a Honda Civic. I could park it in the bed of a Chevrolet Avalanche SUV/pickup truck. People smile at it. Others laugh at it. Everyone wants to know if it's safe.
It is safe, within reason -- as safe as walking across the street, riding a bicycle or motorcycle, or taking a vow of matrimony. Everything is relative. All I know is that I've been driving this little Bosch-diesel Smart "city-coupe cdi" car for a week, and I still have half of a six-gallon tank of diesel fuel left.
I find that amazing!
What's more amazing is that Europeans have been driving these Smart cars since 1998, saving money and saving fuel, and not one Smart has made it to the United States as a retail item.
The one I'm driving -- a 2003 model outfitted with a teeny 0.8-liter, three-cylinder Bosch common-rail, direct-injection diesel engine -- was shipped to these shores to help me feel what it's like to drive the thing on big American roads and highways crowded with big cars and trucks from America, Asia and Europe.
(It's funny how the Asian and European car companies sell small, fuel-efficient cars in their home markets. But, with a few over-hyped exceptions such as the gas/electric Toyota Prius, they mainly sell high-powered, big cars and trucks here. It must have something to do with the profit motive, you know, the same one that drives Detroit.) Anyway, I've been having fun in the Smart city-coupe, which has been renamed the Smart "fortwo" for the 2004 model year and beyond. It's a great neighborhood cruiser and a terrific suburban-city commuter.
The Smart city-coupe has near-motorcycle maneuverability in inner-city traffic. Parking is a no-brainer. It isn't afraid of big cars and trucks.
That isn't bravado. I took the Smart city-coupe on a long drive on Interstate 66, down into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. I had no trouble keeping up with the traffic flow and staying out of the way of the big rigs. For one thing, the Smart can reach a top speed of 84 miles per hour. It goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in, well, 20 seconds -- not quite NASCAR or Formula 1 racing form, but, hey. . . .
Also, I know how to use chicken sense.
You've never heard of chicken sense? Ever visited a farm? It works like this: On a farm, you have cows, horses, pigs and chickens. The chickens are smart enough to stay the heck out of the way of the cows, horses and pigs. It works every time.
Similarly, when driving something as small as the Smart city-coupe on an interstate highway, you stay out of the left lane where the motorized horses and cows roam. You don't get in the way of the four-wheeled pigs, and you generally get to where you're going with something approaching peace of mind.
Smart is the technological progeny of Mercedes-Benz and the Swatch Watch people. Numerous "partners" -- basically automotive suppliers such as Robert Bosch GmbH -- are involved in the mix. Smart, a Mercedes-Benz stand-alone brand, is marketed in 31 countries.
This fall, the Smart fortwo will go on sale in Canada as a 2005 model. But the United States won't get that car anytime soon, largely because executives at Smart and Mercedes-Benz believe that the super-sized American psyche can't accept something as small as a city-coupe.
They may have a point.
During my time in the city-coupe, I've heard lots of people say that the car is "cute" and that it's a "neat idea" -- things such as that. But nearly everyone who had something to say about the car said they would not drive it because, "It's too small." One of those detractors included my wife, Mary Anne, who is a certified short person if ever there was one. She flat-out refused to drive it!
Certainly, the 2003 edition of the city-coupe in my hands has its peculiarities -- the way it actually moves back about two feet before engaging in first gear in manual mode; its three-step "start" system (must be started in neutral, for example), and the absolute weightlessness of the rear end. Ah, what rear end? The Smart city-coupe doesn't have one.
Those items have been and are being addressed in the 2004 and 2005 predecessor Smart fortwo cars. But Mercedes-Benz, at the moment, still does not want to take any chances with those in the U.S. market.
Instead, Smart is coming to the United States in 2006 with, you guessed it, a small sport-utility vehicle, something Americans can appreciate. It will be a high-mileage, compact, on-road-only SUV called the Smart "formore." Thus, Smart's current U.S. market strategy comes to this: Introduce something Americans can accept and identify with. Turn that into a winner. And then bring forth the products that will blow American minds -- perhaps a slightly larger version of the fortwo/city-coupe, maybe a "forfour" sedan, and maybe even a hot Smart-Brabus roadster.
Now, that would be way, way cool -- a hot-rod green car. That's progress!
Canadian price note: The Smart fortwo coupe and cabrio (convertible) going on sale in Canada this fall will have preliminary base pricing from $16,000 to $19,000 Canadian, depending on the model chosen.