Drive, She Said: Zipping In and Out of Traffic in the Smartest Cars

Zipping in and out of traffic in the smartest cars

(Jordyn Taylor)

(Jordyn Taylor)

My earliest memories are about riding in my dad’s ’47 Mercury convertible, the smell of the canvas and leather, the heater underneath the dashboard. Or with my Uncle Leo in his ’49 Chevy coupe, delivering sweaters embroidered in his shop in the Bronx to Macy’s and Lord & Taylor’s, or some of the smaller shops on Madison Avenue. On the way back to the shop, he’d sit me on his lap and let me steer. I couldn’t wait to get my license. Most of my driving, though, has been in the suburbs and on the twisting parkways of Westchester County, past white farms and steaming pastures, racing the train on bright summer mornings in a rusted ’41 Plymouth.

When I started playing tennis on the clay courts at 96h Street in Riverside Park about five years ago, I had to think more seriously about what I was driving: a 2004 Chrysler PT Cruiser. The Cruiser had an awful blind spot over the right rear fender due to the support for the roof. It made parking more difficult, and it was a bit of dog when you had to nail it and squirm between taxis. One afternoon I was driving home from the North Fork of Long Island in a hurricane-like storm. Half the L.I.E. was closed, but I kept splashing through puddles till I was about a mile from home. That’s when everything just stopped. Water had worked its way into the computer and fried my electrical system. R.I.P.

Next I bought a four-door Volkswagen GTI with a six-speed, turbo and 17-inch wheels. There’s enough room in the “trunk” for three medium-sized suitcases, and the car seats four comfortably. But what’s best is the way the car maneuvers in traffic. It tracks like a go-cart, and the turbo provides instant power—no turbo lag—to zoom away from just about anything on the road, zero to 60 in less than eight seconds. Beware of potholes, though. Hit one too hard and you risk blowing not just one of those low profile tires but also the alloy rim.
It made me wonder what else might be good for city driving, so I asked around. “I love my Smart Car,” Mary Goldschmidt, a retired economics professor, tells me, “because it has totally transformed my life in the city. At 65, I’m not as fond of the subway as I used to be. Weak knees and foot neuromas make driving preferable. And I can always find a parking spot. No exaggeration. I have never used a parking garage . . . and it probably saves me $5,000 a year.”

Ms. Goldschmidt also informs me that you can park in that spot near the crosswalks as long as the second restraining line doesn’t reach all the way over to the curb. “It’s about the length of a motorcycle, which is also the length of a Smart Car,” she says. But she issues a warning about yellow cabs. “They like to straddle those lines as if daring you to try to pass,” she says. “Really annoying, but the Smart Car is so narrow it’s sometimes possible to slip by or at least annoy them in return.”

As long as you don’t hit a pothole. “Potholes are the primary enemy of the Smart Car,” Ms. Goldschmidt concludes, “which can get lost in a big one.”

We tend to think only small cars are great for city driving, but size has its advantages. George Drapeau, director of public affairs for the Construction Industry Council, drives a 2013 Volvo XC70 Wagon. “It’s a world apart,” he says. “Because of Volvo’s air-purifying system, you’re breathing pure air. When you get out of the car, you’re breathing garbage.” He also points to the City Safety package, which stops the car if a pedestrian steps out into the street in the middle of the block, for example, and the Blind Spot Information System, which warns you when a cab is breathing down your neck.

Still, if the city air is less than breathable, cars are partly to blame, and we all know city driving chews up gas, which is the reason Barry Manning, a senior vice-president at Vanguard Coverage, drives a 2013 Toyota Prius: 50-plus mpg. When I ask what it’s like to drive the Prius in the Manhattan, he says, “When you’re moving, you can get transfixed by the digital readouts and graphics displayed on a screen above the navigation system. It shows if the car is running on electric power only, if there is a combination of the gas engine and electric motor driving the front wheels, or if the whole system is reversed and is now charging the battery. . . . This all effects how much gas mileage you get. So you may have the tendency to be watching the screen when you realize you are moving forward in traffic. I don’t want to think of how often I looked up from the screen just in time to avoid hitting the bus or truck in front of me.”

The Volvo City Safety package might be helpful here.

Mr. Manning warns that Prius drivers can become obsessive about gas mileage. “At the end of each trip, you get a digital readout of your mpg for that trip,” he says. “It starts to become like getting a grade. The Prius is supposed to get 51 mpg in the city. If you end your trip and it read out 47 mpg, you feel like you failed a test. I let my wife drive the car in the city, and the first time she drove it she got 61 mpg! Now I’m obsessed with beating her.”

His other car is a 2007 Corvette, which he drives “very carefully” in the City. “The Corvette doesn’t get 51 mpg,” he concedes. “But it will get you where you’ve going a bit faster than the Prius.”

Look around the city’s parking spots, though, and you’ll be sure to see a lot of Mini Coopers. “Driving a Mini in New York City is like being a little scatback on a football field, or, in my Jason Bourne dreams, escaping from a really heavy-set security guard as you cut through a crowded airport,” says Stan Schmidt, director of Integrated Media Sales at Scientific American. “It’s kind of exciting. Most of my driving time—and by driving I mean pressing down firmly on the accelerator as opposed to constantly touching the brakes in traffic—is pretty connected to the actual feel of the road.”

Mr. Schmidt is aware of the danger of potholes, especially the big hairy ones that could devastate a Mini, but it doesn’t phase him: “You can steer around most anything in front of you,” he says.

So there you have it. Because the chariot makes a big difference when you’re fighting for your life at the Circus Maximus. 

editorial@observer.com