In six days through the USA – from Laredo to Bemidji

Jul 12, 2007
  • Testing of the smart in the USA
  • The innovative car meets with great interest
  • “No road too long for a smart”
The development of the smart city coupe also involved extensive testing. Automotive editor Jürgen Zöllter joined a team of test engineers on a journey across the USA in smart cars. In the six days from Texas to the Canadian border, the test drivers not only familiarized themselves with the qualities of the compact car. They also experienced the fascinating impact the smart had on people both in cities and out in the country. Here’s Zöllter’s report:
“The river is flowing sluggishly, a dirty brown and full of refuse. That’s not what I had expected the Rio Grande to be like. It separates Nuevo Laredo from Laredo, the residences from the “ feeding troughs”, the Mexicans from the Americans, the poor from the rich. Southern Texas with a view of Mexico: our hotel lies near the bridge across the border river. Mexican commuters pour into Texas for the day, a truck convoy heads in the opposite direction. It is five o’c lock in the morning, and the oppressive sultriness weighs us down.
One-and-a-half hours later, a gate opens. A hall made of pre-fabricated elements, a solitary palm tree at the edge of the building. Next to it there’s Rick who checks our papers and waves his okay, we are allowed in. Inside there are workshops, offices and a phone for maintaining contact with Renningen. John, a former employee of Mercedes-Benz of North America, is in charge here. And then there are the smart cars: six city coupes are lined up, washed and filled up, with two-way radios installed. The workshop vehicle is laden and ready to go. Wolfgang climbs into the lead car. At eight o’clock in the morning, we set off, leaving the proving grounds and turning onto the Interstate 13 North. One of the most arduous tests for the smart has begun. Our destination is Bemidji, high up in the north, close to the Canadian border, 3,786 kilometers away. The calculated driving time is five days, ten hours and seventeen minutes. The calculated fuel cost per smart: 81.73 Deutschmarks. The goal of the test is to keep going and get there.
Six smart cars, one behind the other like a string of pearls, purr along between minivan and workshop vehicle and a little later turn off onto the US 83 North in the direction of Carrizo Springs. There are two technicians in each test car, regularly taking turns at the wheel, listening to what their smart tells them, feeling its reactions and recording everything. ‘A great job,’ say those who stayed at home, ‘once across America. Fabulous!’ Then a truck appears in the rear-view mirror, mighty and threatening. Why don’t we just put our feet down?
Wolfgang in the lead car doubles as scout and team leader. He sets the speed and regularly uses the two-way radio to inquire into the levels of engine speed, water and oil temperature. What’s the temperature ahead of and behind the turbocharger? The passengers read off the data, their personal computers on their knees. Bernd notes down everything, his PC serving as the team’s mainframe computer, so to speak.
The landscape remains flat until midday, shrouded in fog that refuses to lift. We pass along huge fields with hundreds of crude oil pumps which move up and down like giant hammers, steadily and placidly, as if there was nothing else in the world except Texas and oil. In-between the oil fields, Texan steaks grow on barren soil. We are heading west, upstream along the Rio Grande. In Del Rio, we stop outside a gas station in the middle of the Texan desert. Even before all of us have climbed out of their cars, people gather around us. ‘What are those little things?’ the attendant wants to know. In just a few minutes, we are surrounded by American cars from which grinning people emerge, forgetting to switch off their engines and air conditioners. They want to know everything: whether we have come over here all the way from Germany with these cars, where we are going and why we are here in the first place. It’s difficult to make them understand that the smart is not an electric car for city traffic in California because where, after all, is the engine?
We are learning our first lesson in smart testing here: Americans are open to every baffling novelty. That the smart engine makes ends meet with three cylinders and a displacement of 0.6 liters leaves them speechless. That it unleashes 55 horsepowers for a top speed of 81 mph or 130 km/h generates admiration. And upon being told that a smart does 65 to 70 miles to a single gallon of fuel, they clap their hands – this is ‘incredible’ by American standards.
Three hours later, we promise each other never to stop for lunch should anyone of us ever pass through Sanderson on the US 90 again. Charred steaks with French Fries as hard as rocks served on tables sticky with spilt coke is something you don’t need a second time in your life. With a full stomach and choking, we continue in the direction of Fort Stockton. Just outside the town, where the US 285 intersects with the Interstate 10, a sheriff approaches us. He turns elegantly at the end of our convoy and stops the last smart. What about these cars, he wants to know. They are from Germany? He was in Germany before, visiting relatives. Which town? Stockholm, he says, but he can’t remember exactly. But he does know the way to our hotel. The first day lies behind us, and in an evening meeting, we record this:
Had a lot of fun, aroused the curiosity of people, frequently raced the smart cars through the Texan steppes at full throttle, reached the foothills of the Sierra Madre, 1,020 meters above sea level, in the evening. Nothing out of the ordinary on the test cars which are fitted with different pedal modules. The ABS settings also vary. We record the different effects this has.
On the second day, the wake-up call comes through at 5.30 a.m. After the lousy ‘Breakfast DeLuxe’, things cannot get worse. We exchange cars: each team today drives the smart of yesterday’s backer. Other drivers, other impressions – the test team must not miss out on anything.
At seven o’clock, we are back on the US 285. The smart engines run like clockwork through gently rolling hills. For a lunchtime break, we stop in Roswell, the world’s UFO capital in the State of New Mexico, where we park right outside the museum. Those of us who opt for a diet after yesterday’s experience join the museum guide and admire aliens, UFOs and other oddities. Dieter and Gunter protect the smart cars again extraterrestrial access. Wolfgang chums up with a commander who climbs into a smart and is hell-bent on buying one. The only question is: how, or more appropriately: where?
The smart city coupe is a car for Europe, designed for everyday use in the alleys of Naples as much as for Copenhagen and Lisbon. To check on its maturity for large-scale production, the newly founded automotive company MCC (Micro Compact Car AG) sends the two-seater around the world – to New Zealand and the North Cape for winter testing, to Barcelona and Chicago for testing in city traffic. We are on a trip from summer into winter in just six days. Wolfgang tries to explain to the American engineering freak in Roswell that only the USA offer the opportunity to cross through all climatic zones within the shortest possible time, through scorching deserts, sultry plains, high mountains, wet and cold swamps and extremely cold regions. His opposite number is speechless. Several times, he walks up and down the side of the smart and can hardly believe it: ‘Just eight feet long? Incredible!’ Then, all of a sudden, he lies underneath the smart and finally settles down in the passenger seat which is slightly offset to the rear. His comment: ’More room to move than in my town car which is twice as long. Ingenious!’
The smart cars break into America’s everyday automotive life like harbingers of a completely new era. A mighty full-size truck, as the offroad pickups in Rambo design are called here, suddenly breaks to a standstill out in the wild, and its driver, a nature-boy wearing a cowboy hat, wants to know whether these really are cars steered by human beings or remote-controlled creatures?
Snow lines the US 60. We climb up to 2,235 meters above sea level; the Santa Fé train has been driving alongside us for the last 30 minutes. I have just counted the 112th freight car behind four mighty diesel locomotives when Bernd calls us on the two-way radio to ask about the charge pressure. Then we stop for refueling, and our records are completed: tire pressure, tread wear, the number of damage spots caused by flying stones in the windshields. Nothing remains unrecorded. In our evening team session in Moriaty, we discuss the question whether the interior climate in all smart cars is agreeable, whether the heat is evenly distributed, and whether the area of the windshield swept by the wipers is large enough. Where does wind noise occur, and how comfortable is pedal pressure over long distances? By the time we drop into our beds, dog-tired, it’s just nine o’clock in the evening. Those of us who cast a glance at the thick, bluish-gray clouds above the Rocky Mountains before going to bed are convinced that it will be snowing tomorrow.
But the dreaded snowstorms failed to materialize on our third day through the high-altitude plains of Colorado. Temperatures are far below freezing point but the roads are dry. In the cozily warm smart cars, we exchange music recommendations. The majority’s clear favorite is the rock music station on frequency 101.5. Then Wolfgang calls us back to duty. A checklist for the forthcoming function test at freezing temperatures is compiled – via two-way radio. This is how we combine business with pleasure, ensuring that the never-ending straights lose their monotony. It’s getting dark by the time we reach Colorado Springs, and at last we see the lights of Castle Rock.
On the following day, we drive across Wyoming. It’s the day of the electronic technicians. Last night, they faxed the data records to distant Renningen, and the evaluations arrived early this morning. Using the personal computers, modifications are made to the smart’s electronics; on the road, the results are read out, compared with each other and discussed time and again. Important parameters for the production cars are established in all practical smart tests. These parameters are also passed on to the system partners as the basis for quality evaluations. Once again, we reach our hotel late at night, and the window panes freeze in seconds. Gilette is the name of the small town just before the border into South Dakota. There are gas stations and motels – and there’s Rosie who, full of enthusiasm for our ‘miracle cars’, throws the biggest steaks into the frying pans.
The last leg is almost 1,000 kilometers long, and none of us is too keen on reaching our destination. This is because more or less monotonous test days in ice and snow await us in Bemidji. Therefore, Wolfgang finally gives in to the wishes of the rock music fans among the team members and permits the longed-for detour via Mount Rushmore. On the car park under the eyes of American Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, we top up the windshield wash water, check the wiper blades and commemorate the musicians of Deep Purple. They once sent the Presidents’ portraits carved out of the rocks around the world on an album cover, making this place as famous as the President’s residence, the White House in Washington, has always been. ‘Eight smarts were here,’ we write into the visitors’ book, shoot a photo and close down the tourist chapter of our trip. For another two hours, we are heading north, with temperatures dropping with every mile we cover. We dive into the continental American winter.
Six hours through the most monotonous region of the USA. Between Dickinson and Detroit Lakes in North Dakota, the Interstate 94 runs straight ahead for almost 550 kilometers. The smarts purr through virtually arctic cold. The only diversion we have is the routine data transfer via two-way radio to the lead car with Wolfgang and Bernd. The smart cars remain neatly on track even on fresh snow – we are in high spirits. Where the minivan out in front and the workshop vehicle at the end of our convoy approach the limits of their traction, the smarts scurry along without problems. Not once do we feel the need to mount winter tires. Then at last, we negotiate the last corner, leaving the Interstate and turning into the home straight to Bemidji.
Less than 100 miles south of the Canadian border, mostly all-wheel drive vehicles are out on the roads. On a normal winter day, temperatures can be as low as minus 30°C (minus 22°F). We measure just minus 12°C (minus 10°F) today – a good enough reason for Bill in Bemidji to shovel snow in his shirt sleeves. At his gas station, we wash our smart cars the next morning. Disbelievingly, he brings out a rule: an eight-foot car that has crossed America in five days? They must be mad, those Europeans – but somehow the concept also appears to be quite ingenious to him. Because with a smart in his garage, there would at last be sufficient space for his snowmobile, his buggy and his motorbike.
This brings us to the end of our test trip with the conviction that the smart city coupe fits into the dense traffic of European cities as much as into the hearts of magnanimous Americans. We’ll now freeze the smarts in Bemidji for five days, then fill them up and drive back to Texas. There’s no road too long for a smart.”