15 hottest products of 2008: the smart car

Smart is back.

Maybe nerds in school still get stuffed in lockers, but it does seem like it's cool again to be smart. America just voted for president a man who is lauded for his intelligence. The public in general seems to be getting smarter about spending money, or at least is thinking a lot about how we spend money. The sales of Smarties candies is on the rise (okay, I'm stretching, but I wanted another "smart" example). And then there's the popularity of the smart car.

The smart car is made by Mercedes-Benz which so far just manufactures one style: the smart fortwo. (Frustrating grammariarns and journalists everywhere, Mercedes-Benz spells the smart car with a lower case "s" and then smashes the "for" and "two" together, so, no, the smart fortwo is not a typo. And the "for two" reference is just what you think. Two people can fit in this vehicle. It's not exactly a family car.)

The smart fortwo started selling in Europe in 1998, but a recent redesign has made it a hot commodity in America in 2008: 20,000 smart cars have been sold in America this year so far; worldwide, around 140,000. And plenty more will continue to be sold. If you go to a smart car dealership in America, you can't drive one off the lot. You have to get on a waiting list.

Not bad, considering the state of the auto industry today.

One smart car dealership in Albuquerque already has presold every truckful of smart cars that he's expecting during the next 12 months. Of course, it may help that you can order a smart fortwo by simply putting down a $99 deposit.

So what's the appeal? Well, the cars are incredibly tiny -- 8.8 feet long, although 5.1 feet tall and wide -- which means the gas mileage is excellent. As the web site for smart cars says, it's "designed to achieve 33 city/41 highway mpg according to 2008 EPA standards, which involves measuring mpg while taking into account real-life driving conditions such as start/stop city traffic, air-conditioning, heating, etc."

The smart cars are also just really cool-looking in a futuristic Jetsons sort of way, except they don't fly, and they're easy to park. Typically, two smart cars can fit into one parking space, and you can also just park the smart car facing the curb on most city streets -- no parallel parking required.

And fortunately, whether you buy the smart car or another car that happens to be smart, our transportation is likely to continue to become more intelligent. Toyota, for example, is developing a brake system that will stop your car at stop signs if you don't.

And that's a very good thing because let's face it, drivers are not necessarily getting smarter.

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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