As we wrap up Micro Week, our celebration of all things tiny, it’s only right that we talk about smart cars in New York City. Anyone who has ever driven around, or better yet, attempted to find parking in the city can get why logically, these cars make sense. Yet something about them just seems so damn strange. They almost resemble toy cars and it's a bit difficult to take those things seriously. Yet, perceptions are not all that they appear to be. We spoke with Vox Media employee David Yee, a proud smart car driver, who decided to give it a go back in 2014, and has been in a love-hate relationship ever since. Here’s what he told us about what it’s like driving a smart car around New York City. Spoiler: it’s actually not that bad.
How long have you been driving a smart car around NYC?
I drove my first Smart Car back in 2014, when I subscribed to Car2Go. I usually hop into one about once every week or so.
What prompted you to try it out?
Curiosity, more than anything else. What would it feel like to drive a literal clown car? I loved the idea that this car could fit into spaces that the average New Yorker would consider polite gaps between cars—an opportunity to succeed where others fail.
What has the experience been like?
The strangest transition happens between when you are looking at the car and sitting in the car. From the outside, it feels like you’re about to squeeze into a cardboard box for a nice long drive; once you’re inside (if you’re not trying to load in cargo) it’s entirely like sitting in a slightly narrow normal car. The seats are comfortable, so as long as you’re not driving, it’s pretty unremarkable. Having said that, driving this is not like driving a normal car, and I’ve learned over the years to adjust my expectations for the car from "driving an automobile" to "steering the world’s safest go kart."
There are no shocks to mention, so I’ve become accustomed to scanning the road ahead for even the smallest bumps and nicks—which has become second nature. If you do manage to hit a pothole, or to drive over the Kosciuszko Bridge into Brooklyn, you really just have to buckle up and brace.
The well-documented slow shifting behavior of the Smart Car is definitely a thing. For that, I pretend that there is a smaller, lazier, more reliable person in the hood of the car manually shifting gears on my behalf. After weeks of jamming the gas constantly to get into third, I actually grew more patient with the whole affair—modest acceleration will get you there, as our ancestors learned about riding horses, I imagine.
I’m much more cautious about inclement weather in one of these things, and I don’t drive them at all in winter weather. After one or two sliding left turns, I realized that I’m more or less driving a hockey puck from December to February.
Finally, all that parking! I can drop this thing into a space the size of a bathtub, and I feel like I take it out for a drive sometimes just so I can put it back somewhere else. I can see the ghosts of spaces where other people see nothing at all—I’m like the kid from The Sixth Sense, but for parking. Parallel parking is a total breeze, and the turning radius of a five-foot long car is pretty sweet.
What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened to you while driving your smart car?
Really, it’s just all the laughing when I park. Sometimes I’ll pick a really tight space, and people will just stop on the sidewalk to see if it can be done. Hint: It can. I get a lot of applause.
What's your favorite and least favorite part about driving a smart car?
The upsides are that you can always park, and it’s a great errand machine if you expect the right things from it—think less like having a team of horses and more like getting your best friend to carry you on their back.
As for the downsides, there’s almost no space at all for your stuff, you slide everywhere if it’s wet out, and you’ll bruise your skull if you hit a pothole at anywhere faster than 20 m.p.h. Also: it’s still a car, and it gets the same tickets as anything else if you park it on the wrong side of the street. Can’t win ‘em all.