SHIFT: Why Smart cars are a dumb choice for car rentals

I wanted to like the Smart Fortwo. I really did. I love writing about eco-friendly cars and thought that Daimler, Smart's owner and the company synonymous with Mercedes-Benz, might have created a car that looks like a golf cart but drives like a roadster. Nope. It drives like a golf cart.

Not that there's anything wrong with that: Why use a pickup truck for errands and driving around town when you never need to go faster than 45 mph? The Smart Fortwo is a totally acceptable second car — it won't hold your family, furniture or German Shepherd, and you wouldn't want to bring it on a road trip, but you can park it perpendicularly in a parallel space. But Smart's made the Fortwo the fleet behind car2go, a new car-sharing infrastructure for cities, and I think that's a bad idea. Keep reading to find out why.


My Dumb Smart Experience

A month ago, I rented a car in Manhattan from Enterprise for a weekend trip from the city to Boston and Providence (a minimum drive of 360 miles). I booked an economy car, as usual — I find that they get great gas mileage; I've have had few problems with the low-end Hyundais and Saturns I usually get. This weekend, however, the rental agency's economy car was a Smart Fortwo. I was excited at first— here was my chance to drive one of those neat little clown cars. Plus, I would save a few bucks on gas.

But my husband was skeptical. Could we really fit the groceries, scratching post, cat carrier and suitcases we planned to bring home from New England in this tiny vehicle? We decided to give it a try. We learned quickly that the Smart wasn't right for a long highway trip. Its 0 to 60 mph time is supposed to be just over 12 seconds, but it felt like a terrifying 40. The car was incredibly loud when it accelerated, making a plaintive "change my gears" whining sound. The noise didn't go away when the car hit high speeds like, say, 50 mph. And every pothole felt like a crater.

As we looked at each other miserably, anticipating the eight-plus hours of driving ahead, the radio told us about a snow and ice storm forecast for the next day. We decided to turn back. Our short experience with the Fortwo ended up being an hour-long detour: We turned back from the Bronx to Manhattan to rent the only other car that Enterprise had: an enormous, gas-guzzling Chrysler 300. The 300 drove like a yacht in comparison to Smart's dingy. We felt incredibly guilty — like big, wasteful Americans, eschewing fine European engineering for brute American muscle.

The rental agent also apologized. He didn't want to have the Smart Fortwo in his inventory, he told us, and he gave us a discount on the rental — even though we left with a more expensive car than we'd reserved.


Savvy Rentals

I think my Smart experience was unusual. Not the driving experience — that would be the same for anyone — but Smarts aren't prevalent on the American rental scene. Yet. Most rental car websites describe "economy" cars as being two- or four-door vehicles that can seat five passengers (Enterprise uses the description "Chevy Aveo or similar"). The Aveo has a combined mpg of 30 according to the EPA. The American Smart Fortwo gets 36 mpg combined. An improvement, to be sure, and far better than the 19 mpg Chrysler 300, but it hardly rivals the Prius, with it's combined EPA rating of 46 mpg. What you're sacrificing in exchange for the 6 mpg of fuel economy is a real trunk, three rear seats, normal-sized tires, protection from head-on collisions and the ability to pass other cars on the highway.

Right now, the Smart's the exception in the Aveo-filled rental car world. But that may change soon. Daimler's Smart-car based car2go is a rental, or "car sharing" operation that uses only Smart cars. It's like Zipcar, but more flexible — you don't have to reserve cars in advance online — you can do it on your cellphone, or you can just approach a car on the street and swipe your keycard to see if it's rented or not. You don't have to drop off the car where you pick it up, and you can rent it by the minute instead of by the hour.

Car2go is debuting in Austin, Texas in the fall, and in many ways sounds like a great idea. Its big stumbling block, I suspect, will be price. You can rent a car in Austin for less than $20 a day, but you'll be lucky to get more than two hours of driving time for that price with car2go. The other stumbling block? The Smart Fortwo itself.


Car2go's Fatal Flaw

Why do people rent cars? Usually, it's for one of three reasons: They're traveling for business, they're going on out of town and don't own a car or they don't own a car and they need to transport something big and heavy. The Smart, which works as a cute way to get around a city, could work for the first category of renter, but it won't fly for the other two. But the first type of renter, the one in town for a couple of days, is precisely the kind of person who can't take advantage of a car-sharing operation that rents by the hour.

As for renting a car by the minute, that's something that I do a lot here in New York City. It's called taking a taxi, and I can do it drunk. Austin's not full of taxis, so there's a chance Daimler's plan could work there, but I'm skeptical. And there's no way the concept is going anywhere else without addressing the Fortwo's limitations for renters.