This story originally appeared on Motive on August 13, 2008
From the first second it was dropped off at the Motive offices, everyone refused to take the Smart Fortwo seriously. And really, how can you? After all, this microcar was intended for the narrow, crowded streets of Europe, not the land of SUVs, suburban sprawl, and wide butts. Even sitting alongside a fifth-generation Volkswagen GTI, the Smart looked positively miniscule and toy-like. It wasn't long before someone parked it on the sidewalk in front of the door.
The golf cart jokes were inevitable. With a length of only 106.1 inches and seats for just two people, it's no stretch to imagine the Fortwo as something of a high-end bag-hauler. So, we figured, why not load up the sticks and do this road test on a golf course? We'd log our 0-to-60 times on the cart path, maybe get 60-to-0 distance in the fairway, and do lateral testing on the practice green. Of course, we'd do it all on the sly, without the blessing of the course manager; just get in, do our tests, and get out. There was actually no other way. Seriously, if you owned a golf course would you let us do this?
Knowing this was a risky proposition, we did the only responsible thing we could think of — we assigned this task to our two summer interns. We'll call them...let's say...Jeff and Tom, because those are their real names. To help them blend in with the natives, we outfitted each with some authentic duffers' duds from a local thrift store — a tasteless blend of plaid, argyle, and bad hats. We also dressed the Smart for the links, figuring our Motive Country Club livery would allow us a little extra leeway among the public-course crowd — those poor bastards tooling around in their beige E-Z-Go rentals.
Part One of the operation started out just fine. The guys pulled the Fortwo up to the cart area and loaded the bags in the back like it was no big deal. Oh, they got plenty of looks, but we weren't sure if it was because the Smart made the other carts look so boring, or if Jeff's and Tom's outfits were making the other golfers look so dull. Either way, all eyes were on them, and therein lay the plan's downfall.
For as much as the Fortwo looks like a toy compared with other cars, it is clearly too much of a car to be on a golf course. Within seconds of pulling onto the paved cart path, we could see the course marshal racing toward us at full tilt with fire in his eyes — perhaps his E-Z-Go is supercharged, or maybe it's just geared differently. Luckily, our interns had left the Smart running and were able to jump in and make a dash for the parking lot, where they handily outran Sergeant Fairway to the exit of the course and disappeared into traffic (well, as much as a Smart with golf bags hanging out the back can), where no golf cart dares venture. Sure, that 12.8-second 0-to-60 time may sound slow, but the fact that it even gets to sixty (let alone its top speed of 90 mph) saved our asses.
All dressed up and with nowhere to go, we dreamt up a new scheme. If we couldn't road test the Smart Fortwo on a golf course, why not take it into its natural environment — the city — and play a round of golf? It seemed as plausible as the first idea, so we hit the road and headed due east.
Illinois Route 38 runs the width of the state, but from the suburb of Geneva east to Chicago it is known simply as Roosevelt Road. It happens to pass by both the Motive offices and the public golf course from which we had just narrowly escaped, so we decided we'd start our urban golf course on the very same Roosevelt Road some forty miles away.
The ride from the suburbs to the Loop turned out to be far better than either of our young guys was expecting. Inside the Fortwo, it's easy to forget just how small it is on the outside. Though it seats only two, the passenger cabin is spacious. It also rides like a much bigger car, which is surprising given its 73.5-inch wheelbase and low-rolling-resistance tires. All but the biggest of pavement buckles and potholes (of which the Eisenhower Expressway has plenty) were easily absorbed by the independent suspension.
Despite just 70 horses wheezing away under the rear hatch, keeping pace with traffic wasn't too difficult, so long as our boys weren't expecting rapid changes in speed. Only one of the eight segments that make up the LCD fuel gauge was extinguished during the ride in, meaning that we used roughly one of the paltry 8.7 gallons of premium gas the Fortwo holds, delivering economy that is at least consistent with its EPA figures of 33 mpg city and 41 highway.
Having safely arrived in the city of big shoulders in the smallest car available in America, it was time for the interns to figure out the rules of their new game. Armed with practice balls, a portable putting cup, and a rubber tee that may or may not have been stolen from the driving range at the suburban course we'd just fled, the guys decided against any of the conventional golf rules. Instead, they would tee up and hit the ball to make it official, and they'd putt out to finish the hole. But rather than counting strokes in between, they'd get their scores by counting the number of questions each one fielded about the Smart while they were "in play." With the Fortwo parked for the first hole, we tossed the tee for first-off honors, and it landed pointing directly at Jeff. Tee 'em up, boys.
South Loop, Roosevelt & Columbus to McFetridge Drive
Jeff hits the ball straight down the fairway — not a bad first shot. Tom plays a hook to account for the dogleg left onto McFetridge. Nice. Between the Field Museum of Natural History and the UFO that swallowed Soldier Field, they drop the putting cup and finish out. In no time at all, a Wisconsin tourist asks Jeff, "What the hell is that thing?" Add a stroke for Jeff, who tells him it's a 2008 Smart Fortwo.
"Is it electric?" comes the follow-up.
"Nope, runs on gas," replies Jeff.
Tom stays quiet and two-putts to finish, while Jeff takes just one stroke to sink it but loses two to the Cheddarhead.
Jeff: 4 Tom: 3
Adler Planetarium to Shedd Aquarium
Tom takes his rightful place at the tee, where he's greeted by a shout of "Who makes that thing?" He informs the curious onlooker that Daimler, the same company that makes Mercedes-Benz cars, produces it. "What's it cost?" Tom takes his swing before answering that they start just under $12,000, but this one is a "Passion" model and lists for $14,720. That includes metallic paint, the optional silver-colored "tridion" safety cell frame, electric power steering, and additional gauges.
Jeff's avoiding eye contact at this point; he tees up and proceeds to slice his drive right into Lake Michigan. Add a stroke for a drop-ball penalty and he's hitting three on his second attempt. They drop the makeshift hole at the steps of the aquarium and each putts twice to sink it.
Jeff: 5 Tom: 5
Buckingham Fountain, within Grant Park
The boys squeeze the Fortwo into the most unlikely of spaces in front of the famed fountain. Tom addresses the concerns of what appears to be a Nebraska farm boy as he tees up. "How bigga motor's 'at thing got?" To which Tom proudly announces it's a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder, then smacks his drive clear over the fountain and walks away. Jeff steps up to the tee, and straight into Bubba's next question. "Where's an engine that big (sarcasm) fit in 'at little thing?"
"In the back," he dutifully responds before killing the ball.
Fearing any additional strokes, they pick up the tee and head to the other side of the fountain, drop the putting cup, and quickly finish out with a pair each.
Jeff: 4 Tom: 4
Lakeshore Drive North
The sheer pace and volume of traffic on old LSD precludes any real questions. Or golfing, for that matter. The guys settle for teeing up at the entrance to Navy Pier, then both putting "gimmees" for par.
Jeff: 3 Tom: 3
North Avenue Beach
It wouldn't be golf without a bunker shot, but the sand proves to be only one of this hole's difficulties. North Beach is as popular on a warm Chicago day as a corrupt politician. The guys are no doubt going to take some strokes from the public here.
"What's the gas mileage?" Forty, give or take.
"How much does it weigh?" About 1800 pounds.
"Doesn't look very safe, does it?" Actually, the entire passenger cell is designed for occupant protection, and it performs as well or better than most larger cars in the IIHS frontal impact tests.
"Does it have airbags?" Yep, two in front plus side-curtain bags. ABS and stability control, too.
"Do chicks dig it?" Yes, yes they do. But not as much as they dig old-school golf garb at the beach.
Jeff: 7 Tom: 5
Lincoln Park has long been an enlightened yuppie spot in Chi-town, so chances are it's not the first time many of the locals have seen a Smart. After much deliberation, the Grand Prix in front of us passes on a parking space that the Fortwo snatches. A bystander asks where we got it. Jeff and Tom stare each other down for the right not to answer; Tom eventually buckles, perhaps out of guilt that he's ahead by three strokes. He tells the guy that they're borrowing the car, but that there are 74 dealers across the country. He also reminds him that if he wants one, he'd better get in line, as the wait list currently extends some nine months.
Jeff: 3 Tom: 4
The park along the river at Kingsbury and Erie looks like it was lifted off a suburban golf course. Except that there are half-naked, sunbathing twenty-something beauties sprawled across the fairway. Considering the scenery, the guys consider lingering a while and letting some other groups play through. Of course, there are no other players; they're the only ones dressed ridiculously and carrying golf clubs on this urban oasis, and the chance of a pick-up foursome is remote.
The only person to show any interest in them is a UPS driver, who asks Jeff how the Smart handles potholes. Not as bad as you'd think, he informs the man in brown, but it doesn't like sharp ripples in the pavement. "How big are those tires, twelve inches?" he mocks. Fifteen inches, as a matter of fact, but they're only five and a half inches wide in back and a mere four and a half inches wide in front.
Jeff: 5 Tom: 3
In the tight confines under the El tracks, the Smart looks right at home. A couple of office workers outside on a smoke break discuss the Smart amongst themselves for a minute while the guys figure out where to tee up. "How many grocery bags fit in there?" Not quite sure how many bags it takes to fill 7.8 cubic feet, Tom tells them about five or six. Or two golf bags.
A minute later they ask him, "Does it come in automatic?" Actually, the only transmission is a five-speed gearbox with an automatic clutch and only two pedals, so yeah, it's an automatic. The nuances of an SMG-type transmission are clearly beyond these ladies, so Tom saves his breath and perhaps a quadruple bogey. Of course, if they ever take a drive in one they'll know right away it's not a conventional auto-box; the throttle kicks down abruptly and sits it out for a long time between shifts. In fact, it seems to be faster at 50-percent throttle than flat out.
Jeff: 4 Tom: 6
State Street, South Loop
The final hole is an easy one. It's a straight shot back to Roosevelt Road. This section of the city was once as degenerate as Skid Row (the band, that is) but is now alive with the sights, sounds, and roast-coffee smells of gentrification. Our two guys tee up for their last drives, but no one much notices. This neighborhood is bustling with newness, and the Smart seems to fit right in. Not that Tom and Jeff do. They take their putts and finish up.
Jeff: 3 Tom: 3
It's late in the afternoon now, and with the summer sun beating down on them, they draw the fabric roller shade closed beneath the smoked acrylic roof panel, roll the windows up with a touch of the buttons, and blast the air conditioning for the ride back to the suburbs. The Fortwo negotiates the cloverleaf ramp onto I-290 with confidence, despite its narrow track and decidedly top-heavy appearance. While traffic moves at a pace suitable for even an E-Z-Go, Tom and Jeff are thankful for the real-car amenities of the Smart as they squeeze between two semis. Fore!