April 20, 2006

Size is everything, and I'll take a compact

I love small cars.

I drive a Toyota Prius, and its four doors and moderately useful back seat just might qualify it as the largest car I've ever owned.

I live in the part of the country where truck and SUV names come from (Sierra, Tahoe), so it can be kind of lonely at the bottom, looking up at people in their giant pickups and contemplating the irony of naming gas guzzling vehicles after natural features.

I don't harshly judge every person who drives a large vehicle. They might have a job that involves hauling around lumber, a winter home at the top of a mountain, or a brood of children who all play the cello. But if some jerk tries to cram his Excursion into a compact parking space, my goodwill burns up faster than a gallon of premium in a Hummer.

Environmental stewardship definitely plays a role in my vehicle selection, but it's not my only motivation. If I were truly responsible, I'd take the bus or ride a bike.

The truth is, I really enjoy driving little cars. I love the way a little car can hug a turn, slide into a tight spot during a lane change, and zip ahead of the big guys after a light turns green.

Eager salesmen at car rental counters are wasting their breath when they look up my reservation for a compact, shake their heads in pity, and try to convince me that for an extra $12, I could upgrade to an Oldsmobuick land yacht. The idea of drifting around an unfamiliar city with an extra wide berth, clipping drive thru menu boards with my side mirror, sounds about as appealing to me as parallel parking an oil tanker. Upgrade me to a Miata, and perhaps we'll talk.

I suspect it's genetic, a trait inherited from my European immigrant parents. My father's ideal car looked much like mine: Little, zippy, and equipped with a manual transmission.

For years, I fancied myself as a driver of the European mindset, imagining that me and my little car would blend right in on the Autobahn or the narrow cobbled streets of a Riviera resort town. Then I went to Europe last fall, and I saw something that took my breath away.

This is a Smart Car. They're everywhere in Europe, and they make a Mini Cooper look like something that needs to stop at railroad crossings.

Smart Cars get 60 mpg, they have interchangeable panels so you can change your car's color to match your mood or outfit, and they are about as long as a bicycle - allowing them to fit into all kinds of tight spaces.

They even make a convertible.

I still love my Prius, and my intentions of procreation make the back seat a must. Since today's children are banished to car seats until college, it will probably be many years before I will be able to purchase a Smart Car.

Nonetheless, it makes me happy to know that the first 100 USA-OK Smart Cars made it across the ocean last month and have started showing up on California roads.

I hope they are wildly successful. I hope that Americans come out in full force and reject the bloated behemoths that clog up our freeways and parking garages today.

There is also a part of me that's a bit sad, knowing that my smugness over having the most fuel-efficient little car on the road will be short-lived. One day, someone in a Smart Car might be cursing me out for shoving my ostentatious hatchback into a compact parking space.

And I'll know exactly how they feel.

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