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Smart test drives in Boston

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  March 22, 2010 03:48 PM

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(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

There's not much incentive in plunking down 13 grand for a car the size of a large bean bag. But Smart, the microcar sub-brand of Daimler, has wised up after a year of slow US sales, and is camping in Boston for the rest of the month offering test drives right from the curb.

If you're in the North End or Copley Mall Plaza today, in Allston on Tuesday or the Financial District on Wednesday, you can hop in a new ForTwo coupe or convertible without traveling to the state's only Smart dealerships in Somerville or Lynnfield.

The Smart party, having hit up Kenmore Square and the Back Bay in some very warm weather last weekend, will also be in Cambridge and Salem. They'll be at specific locations (complete list here) each day through March 31 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Conveniently, that's also when the $2,500 rebate expires.

When the first Smart ForTwo microcars landed on American soil, they arrived just in time for $4-per-gallon gas and the ensuing fallout of the traditional SUV. Smart, imported by racing team legend Roger Penske, sold nearly 25,000 of the teensy two-seaters in 2008. As the recession hit auto sales for much of 2009, Smart managed nearly 15,000. This year, Smart is struggling to match half of that.

Smart sales dropped by 68.8 percent year-over-year in February, and in January slid 84.3 percent. From January to February last year, Smart delivered 3,191 cars. During the same time this year, they've only done 720.

More than a million Smart ForTwo models have been sold across the world since 1998. It's been tough to convince Americans, whose cities are far less narrow and dense than those in Europe, to scale their automotive footprints down so drastically. As its name implies, the ForTwo just seats two, and there's hardly any luggage space.

Even the gas mileage isn't as remarkable as it should be for a tiny, 3-cylinder car — the 36 mpg combined EPA rating is only slightly better than the Honda Fit and upcoming Ford Fiesta, both of which seat five and cost about the same when options are considered. If it's about cost, the bare-bones Nissan Versa — also without A/C or radio — is $1,925 less than the cheapest $12,635 Smart, and includes a real trunk and power steering. EPA combined mileage? 29 mpg. It's a similar story with the Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, and Chevrolet Aveo.

In Europe, Smart offers more efficient diesel engines that bring upwards of 50 mpg (although the European fuel tests are not directly comparable). Later this year the company, in a partnership with California-based Tesla Motors, will bring over 250 examples of the all-electric ForTwo, perhaps the smartest powertrain yet for a car this small. But with a host of larger EVs arriving in the next three years from Nissan, Ford, and Fiat, will that be enough to save Smart from collapse here?

We still haven't driven one, so let us know what you think if you stumble upon the Smart street team.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
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