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Originally published March 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 14, 2008 at 9:48 AM

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2008 Smart fortwo | It's adorable, it makes a statement - but does it make sense?

Love came my way the moment I pulled my itty-bitty Smart car into Midtown Manhattan traffic. Bicycle messengers, pedestrians, taxi drivers...

Newhouse News Service

Love came my way the moment I pulled my itty-bitty Smart car into Midtown Manhattan traffic.

Bicycle messengers, pedestrians, taxi drivers, tolltakers on the New Jersey Turnpike — all gave me thumbs-up, high fives, waves and grins.

Emerging from yoga class later, I found a little love letter on the windshield — to the car, not to me. "I want one of these cars!" my correspondent gushed.

"It's adorable!" chirped my neighbor. "Put a tail on it, and it's a mouse!"

The "smart fortwo" car — the very name itself is tiny — hit U.S. roads in January, and the timing of its arrival here couldn't be better.

Gas is up, green is in, and the extra-small two-door is a virtual billboard announcing one's willingness to sacrifice, beginning with a capital "S."

The car attracts stares not just for its size, but for how that size is allocated. Most compact cars are shrunken versions of big cars, with all basic design elements left intact.

By contrast, the Smart folks simply amputated the rear half. The car is less than 9 feet long.

There are no design apologies, nothing to disguise the brutality of the sacrifice. There will be no pretending the Smart fortwo has a back seat. It doesn't. Tell your friends to get over it.

And that is part of the car's draw. If cars tell the world about us, the Smart is a megaphone announcing its owner belongs to the shock troops of change. Zipping along next to bloated minivans and SUVs, it feels like one has time-traveled into the future. It flaunts its eco-ness — the highway's equivalent of the recycled canvas grocery bag.

"A good balance"

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That truncated design is the most radical aspect of the car. After all, its power isn't hybrid, electric, compressed air, diner grease, biofuel or even diesel. It uses gasoline — and premium gas at that.

While it gets the highest mileage of any gas-powered car in the U.S. — 41 mpg highway and 33 city — Toyota and Honda hybrids still rule on mpg.

It would seem that a car half the size would get twice the mileage, but it doesn't work that way.

"We wanted a good balance between performance and economy," said David Schembri, president of Smart USA.

Nor is it half the price. The no-frills version (the "fortwo pure") retails for $11,590, seemingly a bargain for a car made by a division of Mercedes-Benz. But it lacks power windows, power steering, and a radio. (All can be added for a price.)

The "passion coupe" we tried cost $13,590. It had nifty Formula 1-style shifter paddles on the steering wheel and a 4-foot-square sunroof that adds to the car's feeling of spaciousness. It also had a radio, CD player and iPod jack.

Safety concerns

The American version has been adapted to meet U.S. emissions and crash standards — the latter being key to wooing consumers who feel only an SUV can keep them safe in the highway arms race.

Four airbags protect the car's two occupants. And the passenger cabin is surrounded by a reinforced steel cage, a safety feature adapted from NASCAR.

Smart says the fortwo is designed to get four out of five stars on U.S. crash tests and recently got four stars on an equivalent European test — however, neither the U.S. government nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has yet issued actual test data.

Narnia's wardrobe

Over four days, I threw everything its way — a 6-foot-4 nephew, 8-foot cross-country-skis, a cello, groceries and two claustrophobes (one at a time.)

Its design is deceptive: It looks like passengers should be horribly cramped, yet they aren't. It's like Narnia's wardrobe, a seemingly small space that widens upon entry.

The stuff was accommodated; the people, impressed.

Then a cold front blew in, and with it, reality. While the Smart car did surprisingly well in 8 inches of snow — it didn't strand me — its rear-wheel drive and light weight (1,800 pounds) produced a fishtail or two. When the snow turned to sleet, we chose to stay home.

The Smart car neither rides nor sounds like a lawn mower, and could hold its own in traffic — although it is best to dodge particularly deep potholes.

It's a breeze to parallel park and can even park nose-in, taking up half the curbspace.

The unending admiration throughout my test drive triggered a distant memory: Ah yes, this is how people responded when I was nine months pregnant.

Of course, these good vibes may be available only to the first wave of Smart owners. For some customers, ordering a Smart fortwo today means delivery toward the end of the year.

By then, they may become commonplace, and the smiles may fade.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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