How is your experience?’ I was sitting in the Smart at a traffic signal, fiddling with switches and generally minding my own business, when I heard a rather forceful knock on the window. A middle-aged man had his face pressed to the tinted glass and was tap-tapping away in earnest expectation. I lowered the window and had to stop halfway, because his face was pressed so hard to the glass that it moved down too. He gently peeled himself off and asked again ‘How is your experience?’ I usually dislike traffic-signal small talk and I almost said ‘My experience is fine, thanks, how’s yours?’ But the thing with the Smart is that it’s endlessly cheerful, and you can’t help but let some of its character rub off on you. ‘It’s good fun, actually,’ I said. ‘But how is the small size?’ I wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to this time around, so I played it safe and said that the small size was also good fun, not to mention convenient to park. Then came the inevitable query. ‘How is the average?’ ‘Oh, the average is excellent, it gives almost 30 km per litre of diesel.’ ‘Really? You have put motorcycle engine, is it?’ I began pondering the consequences of putting an Enfield or Suraj diesel into a Smart, but they were too grim to think about for long. Can you imagine calling a car a Smenfield or, God forbid, a Smooraj? Anyway, I could have told the inquisitive gent that no, there was actually a tiny 799cc, 40 bhp CDI diesel chugging away under the equally minuscule hood, but the light turned green and I had to get going. I vaguely thought I heard the man yell ‘But how is the maintenance?’, but that was probably just my imagination.
The Smart I was driving around in was a first-gen model, and although its aforementioned diesel engine was small (the smallest common-rail diesel in the world at launch, as a matter of fact), it certainly wasn’t bothered with making itself inconspicuous. The clatter came through fairly clearly into the cabin, and my butt wasn’t exactly vibe-free either. This was an irritant, and even allowing for the fact that first-gen common-rail engines were rather unrefined, it acted as a downer as far as the overall image of the car was concerned. Still, one can live with a certain amount of noise. What was really disconcerting was the nature of the transmission – the auto ‘box was snatchy to the point of inducing whiplash. Every time I floored the throttle, the tranny would stretch, yawn and then suddenly realise it was late for work, resulting in a series of near-jackrabbit leaps. Again, this would have been reasonably OK on empty European roads, but in Mumbai’s nightmare stop-go traffic, it wasn’t much fun.
What was fun, though, was looking at the reactions of people as I drove past them. The Smart gave most of south Mumbai neck aches as they craned to have a better look. I swear that the little car drew as much attention as I would have done had I rolled up in a Rolls-Royce, perhaps more. People pointed, stared, giggled, clapped, jumped, had photos taken alongside and did double takes, but most of all, they grinned. I’ve never been in a car that has produced such an overwhelmingly cheerful response among the public, and I found myself with a permanent grin plastered to my face too.’Electric gaadi hai?’ asked a number of people. An elderly gentleman, evidently Parsi, said ‘What sort of engine does it run on, son, and is it rear or forward mounted?’ Yup, it may have been a bit clunky to drive, but as a turner of heads, it scored 12 on 10.
Inside the greenhouse (and I do mean greenhouse, what with the vast swathes of glass all around me – all that was missing was a fern or two), life was equally funky. The dials and AC vents were suitably new-age, with the ignition switch down by the handbrake. The Smart is actually a lot roomier than it looks (after all, it’s essentially an A pillar with two doors) and two adults can stretch out comfortably. Too bad about the kids – leave them with the nanny. Oh, and don’t bring too much luggage either; you’d be hard pressed to stuff anything more than a small Samsonite into the back. In all fairness, this car wasn’t built for intercontinental touring; its whole point was to make city-driving less of a chore. To put this to the test, I decided to drive around in traffic and see whether it really worked.Whizzing along Marine Drive at a leisurely 70 kph, the Smart felt quite at home. The ride quality, already a fairly stiff Euro-spec, took a bit of a further hit because of the fat low-profile tyres, but it wasn’t of a bone-rattling order. Fellow motorists drew up alongside and ogled, and the usual quota of nitwits tried to drag-race as well. I decided to head for Colaba and the Regal cinema circle, mainly because I love that part of Mumbai and also because I thought there would be good photo-ops there. As luck would have it, the Navy was conducting a Beating The Retreat ceremony near the Gateway of India, which meant the police and the Military Police were out in full force. This led to stern looks and loud admonitions every time I attempted to park the car and shoot a photo, but I think even the cops were grudging in their warnings – heck, I’m sure I saw a couple of them grinning as well. The BEST bus drivers (in whose immediate path I admittedly parked the car) were somewhat less charitable, and next to them I felt like I was caught in a Jurassic Park stampede of T-Rexs. The part I enjoyed best of, however, was parking. Those of you who know anything about Mumbai know that it’s easier to write a doctorate on quantum physics than it is to find a parking spot. With this little baby, however, I held all the aces. I neatly tucked into spots where no other car could hope to go, and just to rub it into fellow drivers, I even parked breadthwise (motorbike fashion) between other cars. Parking ke liye kya mast gaadi hai!’ , said a passing cabbie, and he couldn’t have put it better. The Smart, for all its idiosyncrasies, was undoubtedly mast in every way – cute, cheerful, fun and, most importantly, different from the crowd. It’s not too often that you get to say that about a car, now, is it?
We would like to thank Pratik Desai of Upaj Motors for the Smart. For more info on the smart email firstname.lastname@example.org