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July 30, 2014

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Tiny car draws stares, questions

It may be Smart, but attraction to some is its ‘personality’

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Leila Navidi

The Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe faces off with a Hummer H2 Thursday in the parking lot of Whole Foods at The District in Henderson. The Towbin dealership on Sahara Avenue, which until last week sold Hummers, has gone to the opposite extreme, carrying the two-seat Smart cars and, soon, scooters (as well as Rolls Royces and Bentleys).

Smart Car

Las Vegas Sun Reporter, Phoebe Sweet takes the Smart Car on a test drive. Find additional coverage here.

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Jack Schenk, a 6-foot-8-inch trainer at 24 Hour Fitness, tries out the German-made Smart Fortwo Passion Coupe. He had enough headroom, but the steering wheel landed low in his lap. His main objection, though, was to the car's color -- orange.

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Driving a Smart Fortwo car is like punching the kid sitting next to you in third grade. Sure, it will get you attention. But maybe not the kind you were looking for.

This is what happens when you’re bopping around town in what is essentially an orange roller skate that could fit in the bed of a pickup truck:

A gawker next to me makes the “roll-down-your-window” gesture, then demands to know: “What is that?”

And so it went for the next eight hours, drawing expressions of disbelief at my two-seater Passion Smart, on loan from the Towbin dealership on Sahara Avenue.

Yes, that Towbin, the one that had been selling Hummers until last week.

I am amazed that I had survived tooling down major stretches of Interstate 15 and Interstate 215 in a car the size of a golf cart, a car that weighs a mere 1,600 pounds, just a little more than your average milk cow.

Even my co-workers offer little respect. They laugh at the horn’s “meep meep,” akin to the noise the Road Runner makes before luring Wile E. Coyote over a cliff. But neither the horn nor the car’s diminutive size is the most underwhelming feature.

Most disappointing is its clock. Because the car was designed by Mercedes-Benz and Swiss watch manufacturer Swatch, I expected a stunning timepiece.

What I got was a tiny digital clock next to the arrow that tells the driver when to upshift.

Only about 30,000 of the conversation pieces will be sold in the United States in the next year. Towbin will sell 350 Smarts — which come in Pure, Passion and Passion cabriolet models. No doubt there are 350 people in the Las Vegas area who will plunk down $11,500 just for the bragging rights on a base model Smart Pure with no AC. Dan Towbin, owner of the Las Vegas Towbin dealerships, says it would be tough to spend more than $20,000 on a Smart, although endless options, such as themed wraps and interchangeable body panels in a variety of colors, can add to the bottom line.

The Smart Passion I drove around Thursday costs $15,400, and features AC and a CD player but no power steering.

Towbin, one of 67 Smart dealers in the states, will also soon sell scooters, Bentleys and Rolls Royces, according to Dan Towbin.

Although the Smart is famous, or perhaps infamous, for its size and fuel economy, for many buyers it’s all about personality. “It’s so cute,” one passer-by said. “It just puts a smile on your face.”

Towbin first saw the Smart in a roundabout in Paris. He turned to his wife and said it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen.

That was 10 years ago, before $4-a-gallon gas and carbon footprint guilt, when bigger was always better.

Today, it’s not so much about big or small, he says, “it’s about vehicles with a personality.”

Some people, such as Cathy Shobe, who stopped to check out the Smart Car after parking her Mercury Grand Marquis at Whole Foods in Henderson, talk about its practicality. She’s amazed at the Smart Car’s 41 miles per gallon.

So is Joe Cosmo, who says his Hummer gets 11 miles per gallon “on a good day.”

But not everyone is impressed. And they don’t even try to hide it.

At a Taco Bell drive-through, the cashier laughs so hard he forgets my soda.

And after nearly backing into me — I can only assume I was too small for him to see — Glenn Heath follows me into a parking lot to inquire about my ride. Although curious, he questions whether the Smart Car is really the most practical choice. Yes, it gets 41 miles to the gallon. And yes, it’s cheap.

But so was Heath’s Ford Focus. And the Focus is equipped with a trunk and seating for five. Five!

I also take the Smart by a Henderson 24 Hour Fitness center, where friend and trainer Jack Schenk enlists a co-worker to help him lift the car off the ground. They fail, but not for the reason you might expect. The body of the car is made entirely of some kind of (super-high-tech, we’re sure) plastic attached to the four-star crash-rated frame, and they’re worried they will rip the snazzy orange bumpers right off the car.

Schenk, who is 6 feet 8 inches tall, tries to climb inside. He’s got headroom but the steering wheel is in his lap.

“That’s one hell of a car,” he says, joking that he’d like one, “maybe if it was a different color.”

A passer-by is so distracted checking out my ride he nearly runs into a handicapped-parking sign. And then he tells me to be safe.

I admit it is with relief that I return the Smart at the end of the day. After all, it had taken nearly a half-hour of pleading just to get my oversized boyfriend into the thing, and I don’t have that kind of time to spare every day.

But I did take one thing away from my Smart car experience. Piloting my own piece of German engineering — a four-door, 3,000-pound Jetta — off the lot and onto I-15, I might as well have been driving a tank.

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