Just a heads up: Michael Reid of the Times-Colonist newspaper contacted me several days ago about an article he's writing for this Friday's paper. I don't know exactly what he's going to write, but he certainly asked me lots of questions! It should be in the Auto section.
The Good Life column: Small cars can pay big dividends
MICHAEL D. REID / TIMES COLONIST
APRIL 12, 2013
Luxury isn’t an adjective that springs to mind when you think Smart Car.
Until it’s rush hour downtown, you’re trying to beat the clock and you desperately need a parking spot.
“Ah, yes, ownership has its privileges,” you’ll be tempted to say as you ease your tiny, two-seat Smart into one of Victoria’s 24 dedicated small-vehicle spaces designed for such mobile bundles of joy.
Suddenly, this nifty little number seems as luxurious as a Bentley Continental GT. Especially when the driver of that bulky SUV who was eyeing your spot until he realized size does matter in the parking world glares at you with contempt.
This occurred recently on Johnson at Government, where a small-vehicle spot near a popular video store beckoned, like a T-bone tempting my dog. Parking was a matter of some urgency. After finally seeing the first season of Downton Abbey on DVD, my wife and I had become so addicted, we had to start watching Season 2 immediately.
The DVD was a hot property, so, in the time it would take to find a regular parking spot, it could be gone.
Only having to pay $1.25 an hour (coins only) — half as much as regular parking-meter rates — was a bonus. It was almost as sweet as the phenomenal fuel economy of the 2011 Smart Pure coupe, borrowed from Three Point Motors Victoria, and its clutch pedal-free “automated manual” transmission. (For a guy who doesn’t drive stick and has no desire to learn, it was cool getting to drive in “automatic,” yet feel the gears shift as if driving in manual, which you can also do.)
After tooling around in one of these peculiar sub-compacts, I began to realize why they’re so beloved. I did wonder, however, whether driving a car of such Lilliputian proportions affected how others perceive you.
Was it mere coincidence that when I pulled up to a Tim Horton’s in the Smart to buy my large tin of home-brew coffee, the clerk said she could only give me the small size? Or that when I ordered M&Ms at the multiplex, the staffer handed me a tiny tube of the miniatures meant for pint-sized viewers?
I am not making this up. Cue the Twilight Zone theme song.
Serious Smart car owners are a breed apart, I discovered.
“We used to be pretty active, especially when they were still a novelty,” recalled Ladysmith-based enthusiast Mike Tippett, 53, who bought one of the first of the 10,241 diesel Smarts sold in Canada.
Tippett joined the waiting list for his first Smart on July 10, 2002, and got his factory-ordered diesel — a green and black pulse convertible — three years later. He and his wife drove it 250,000 km until last October, averaging 3.2 litres per 100 km.
“People on the Island Highway would take pictures of you. You felt like a celebrity even if you didn’t want to be,” he recalled.
He flew to Toronto in 2010 to buy his second, driving his 2006 white cabriolet convertible home through the U.S. in winter on snow tires. It’s one of four red or white BRABUS Canada 1 Smarts customized in Bottrop, Germany, and since modified with a remapped engine and sports suspension, “which makes the car handle like a go-kart.”
“It was white-on-white before you could get white-on-white,” said the father of three, who was such a fan that in 2005, he took his family to visit the Smart factory in Hambach, France. He paid another visit in 2008 and was interviewed by a French newspaper.
Although he says the Smart is a car you either love or hate, he loves its non-conformist aspect.
“It reminded me of the old Citroen DS21,” he said. “People felt it was either the most stupid or the coolest thing ever.”
As well as being the puniest car you can buy, the Smart Car is a style statement, Tippett adds, theorizing that’s why it was put on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, along with Italy’s Cisitalia 202.
It’s that fuel economy and parking bonus that have boosted sales, however.
Whether you drive a Smart or vehicles like the Fiat 500, Scion IQ, old Austin Minis, motorcycles or scooters that can fit small-vehicle spaces, it pays to be familiar with the restrictions. A driver who parked his Mazda 626 Cronos into one downtown this week obviously wasn’t, perhaps too accustomed to squeezing into “small car” spots at shopping malls.
“Large trucks will even try,” says Ismo Husu, Victoria’s manager of parking services. “Or people will try to put their tires inside the lines and think that’s good enough, not understanding it’s bumper-to-bumper.”
Husu says the spaces with lime-green meters are so popular, more will be added as the Smart population grows.
“The best thing is it’s all extra,” he said, noting there are 1,950 parking spaces downtown. “No regular spaces were shortened.”
Aside from wishful thinking size-wise, there’s another misconception. Husu adds.
“Some people think that after 6 p.m., the size restriction doesn’t apply. It’s 24 hours a day.”link