Getting smart

Taking a test drive of a tiny automotive marvel

Photo Illustration by Colleen Wang

"I’m going to fit in that?” Or so I thought as I drove on the lot of Towbin Motors on Sahara, formerly Towbin Hummer. I was there to test drive the Smart Car, the latest import from Mercedes, but it had been a while since I’d seen one up close. It looked like someone sawed a perfectly nice automobile in half.

I had a goal in mind: To get that baby up to its maximum speed on the ultimate training ground: U.S. 95. But upon actually standing outside its tiny frame—5 feet tall, 5 feet wide and 8.8 feet long—I had second thoughts. I mean, I’m not averse to small cars; I drove a Mini Cooper S for two years. But this was ridiculous. “You can probably park four of these in a two-car garage,” I said. “I fit six,” a salesman said.

The staff at the Smart Center Las Vegas—the official Smart Car dealership for the entire state—understood my apprehension. When the door was opened, it took me a second to realize that the door was almost the entire length of the car! There are two seats, no hood and zero space in the back. Well, there’s a hatch in the rear for storage, but don’t plan on stashing much more back there than a couple of CDs.


Sitting in this thing gave me more respect for the Germans. I actually had to pull the seat forward upon getting in, and I’m 6 feet tall. Then I noticed the space above my head—it actually existed. You almost forget how small the car is … until you set your rear-view mirrors. There’s a special trick the salesmen show you: Tilt your head to the left when setting the left mirror so all you see is the door handle, then do the same for the right. While driving, you cannot see your car at all. My representative assured me most people get used to it very quickly.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this car was just a … novelty. I mean, come on, is what looks like a glorified golf cart practical in everyday life? And what about the 95?

Enough questions. It was time to turn the key and begin the experience. In a curious turn of technology, the wizards at Mercedes took a manual and turned it into an automatic (’cause, you know, Americans hate manual), meaning that the car “shifts” for you. When I hit the accelerator, the car indeed lurched as if I was actually shifting myself. The “hiccup” effect was a bit distracting at first, but I was told mid-drive that there’s an override you can use to shift into gear yourself, using two paddles underneath the steering wheel. I gave it a quick try but quickly deferred to the car’s artificial intelligence. I was more focused on the fact that I couldn’t see my damn car in the rear-view!

Before hitting the 95, I was required by law to stop at a few red lights. At one of them, I glanced in my center rear-view and saw what appeared to be a motorcyclist sitting in my back seat. I did a double-take, and my salesman smiled. He’d seen that look many times.

Then our moment of 95 truth arrived. I hit the pedal hard, and accelerated just about as fast. But, strangely, even with a 30-mph wind blazing through the Valley, there was no rattling, no veering, no seat-of-your-pants moment. I felt completely and utterly safe, even as I looked down and the speedometer was inching ever closer to 91 mph—the car’s top speed. This wasn’t my idea. The salesman was sitting calmly, telling me to floor it. I slowed momentarily, seeing an NHP officer having nabbed his latest victim, but after that it was balls-out fury. I looked over to my left and saw a young woman in another vehicle give me the strangest of looks. I thought briefly, “Haven’t you ever seen someone merge onto the 95 before?” before realizing I’d forgotten what I was driving. “You’ll see that look a lot,” my guy said.

I hit the 91 mph mark in very little time. At no time during this experience did my pulse race or my facial expression betray any sense of panic. Even though it was only 1,800 pounds (has anyone heard of a car weighing less than 2,000?), this felt as solid as anything I’d ever driven.

Later, I sat with owner Dan Towbin, who’s had an eventful last month, launching the Smart Center Las Vegas while phasing out the Hummer part of his dealership, the end of a 15-year era, and expanding the Rolls Royce and Bentley space. He bristled at speculation that the economy forced him to stop selling Hummers, saying he always planned to do so. He also plans to add hybrid Vespa scooters that get 140 miles to the gallon. We fact-checked that figure, and yes, it’s correct.

Towbin might be one of the happiest men I’ve met in some time, because the Smart Car isn’t just a hit. It’s an explosion. And, in a way, you can thank the economic crisis for that. What caused smirks and giggles when it was first unveiled last year has become much more than the latest fad. With its estimated 44 miles per gallon on the highway and 33 in the city, the Smart Car is the most fuel-efficient gas-powered car in the United States, and at a starting price of $11,990, it’s also one of the cheapest.

Mercedes produces 30,000 of them annually, but demand in the colonies currently stands at 60,000. If you’re doing the math correctly, that translates to “you ain’t walkin’ on the lot and drivin’ away with one the same day.” You have to reserve one online; the wait is about 12 months. (There are three models, the most expensive costing $18,630.)

“We have a large senior-citizen customer base, which I was surprised about,” Towbin said. “But it’s also people who need affordable transportation—students, hotel employees, food-service industry workers, you name it. And there’s also people who own Suburbans and Rolls Royces, and want to even things out.”

And Towbin himself? “I don’t have one at the moment, but I spent four hours in one on the Pacific Coast Highway. I loved it.”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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