Sorry, Clowns Aren't Included

Driving a nine-foot-long Smart car among the incredible hulks on Detroit's roads sounded like a suicide mission. After all, the Smart ForTwo (as in, seats two) might be cute as a bug, but it also seemed like it could be crushed like a bug by all those hulking Hummers rolling by. Still I was the one who wrote that small cars are our future. Time to put my motor where my mouth was.

And—surprise!—I wasn't afraid. Sure, high winds combined with high speeds could create a swaying effect that was unnerving. But the Daimler designers behind the Smart cleverly crafted an oversize cabin with a lofty roof, high seating position and glassy greenhouse that makes you feel like you're inside something far larger. It also helps knowing that you're encased in a reinforced steel cage, surrounded by four airbags and assisted by electronic stability control.

Safety wasn't my problem. Performance was. The car is (under) powered by a tiny 70-horsepower engine, mated to a balky "automated manual" five-speed transmission. That means it looks like an automatic (no clutch pedal or stick shift), but functions like a manual, with pauses between each gear change, which come at awkward times—like in the middle of a left turn. With help from Smart, I learned to lift off the gas at each gear change. That smoothed out the shifts, but it still felt like I needed to pedal to get up to highway speed.

That isn't slowing Smart mania, though. Everywhere I went in SUV-loving Motown, the Smart elicited smiles. "I'm ready for that car," said one man emerging from his big rig. Priced from $11,590 to $16,400, Smart gets 33mpg to 40mpg. You can get more car for the money and better mileage from a hybrid. But for fashion-conscious urban drivers more interested in easy parking than red-line performance, the Smart lives up to its name.