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By Jan Wagner - syndicated weekly columnist/photojournalist
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April 4-6, 2006: Santa Rosa, CA to Phoenix, AZ

 
SMART car in Palm Springs

Our ZAP Across America rally in SMART cars in now well into its third exciting day, and there is already much to tell you about. Today we're at a pit stop to let our cars get serviced, so this is a good opportunity for everyone to rest and for me to bring you up to date. If I had succeeded in writing something two nights ago or, worse yet, last night after being on the go from 7:30 AM to 11:00 PM, what I would have written would probably not have been pretty.


ZAP World Headquarters in Santa Rosa, CA

 
The Press covered the big send-off


Drivers getting interviewed

Our big adventure began in earnest on Tuesday, when we all converged on ZAP World Headquarters in Santa Rosa. Shortly after we arrived our first assigned task was to choose from the variety of SMART cars assembled there. It was a difficult choice between the coupe and the cabriolet -- especially considering the zebra color scheme of one. I chose a two-tone blue cabriolet.

TEST 1: No sooner than I had done that and it was time for the SMART car's first test. Just how much luggage can be packed into a SMART car?

While I had seen SMART cars before, I had never looked closely at them with that in mind. This was going to be a two week trip, and in addition to clothes I also needed to pack some of my professional camera gear, a new 17" notebook computer, discs and documentation for all of the computer's programs (just in case it crashed again like it did the night before I left San Diego) and, of course, miscellaneous, fragile stuff. Oh, and if that wasn't enough (or too much) I also needed to leave a fair bit of empty space, so that I could bring back two day's worth of Press kits from Press Preview days at the New York International Auto Show. That could easily take up a large suitcase pretty much all by itself.


My luggage fits! Score one for the SMART car

The bottom line is that I had one big, hard-sided suitcase, one (overstuffed) garment bag for my clothes, a airplane acceptable carry-on suitcase for the fragile stuff and either my laptop in its case or my camera in its case. That's a lot of luggage to put into any car, let alone one that is renowned for its exceptionally compact dimensions. I left San Diego not knowing if it would fit. Well, I'm happy to tell you that not only did all of that stuff fit, but with room to spare. Of course, I did have to use the passenger seat area too but that's okay, I am driving solo.

 
Getting ready in a hurry

Our quick preparations reminded me of "The Amazing Race," which is one of my favorite TV shows. We scrambled to load our cars, get our goodie bags, fill out last minute paperwork and get a brief orientation to the SMART cars' operation. This was especially important for those of us with cabriolets. They even have removable side rails, so it was important to learn how to retract and raise the top.

TEST 2: Our next task was to carefully drive our cars out of the crowded showroom, to begin our rally. As it turned out, my car was first in line so I had to try it first. Someone has to lead but why me? I need not have worried. In all the years that I have been driving (and that number is getting on the large side), I don't think I have ever driven a car that is able to negotiate such tight turns. Period. Talk about turning on a dime. Needless to say, despite my fears of hitting something I was easily able to drive my SMART car out of the showroom without a scratch -- and into a torrential rain storm, which leads us to...


Me leading rally from ZAP! showroom in Santa Rosa, CA


One of many rain leak tests

TEST 3: How is the cabriolet with regards to resistance to leaks? Since our trip began we have had plenty of rain to check it out. My SMART car appears to be 100% leak-free.

TEST 4: Curb appeal? This one was a total no-brainer, and it actually was validated together with the attribute of...


SMART cars at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco


San Francisco sights

TEST 5: How easy is the SMART car to park? The results to both of these tests were made clear at our lunch stop in San Francisco. After our obligatory photo shoot of the SMART cars with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, we made our way alongside cable cars to world famous Fisherman's Wharf. The problem is, we could only find three parking spaces and there were six SMART cars. What were we to do?


Easy parking and a big hit with the people

The answer was plain to see: park two cars to a space. We did and there was even room to spare. It was an amazing sight. These cars are really, really short. They passed Test 5 with flying colors and, in the process, drew a large crowd of curious onlookers. Trying to answer their many questions made our lunch break much longer than we had intended, but that was fine. The whole point of this tour is to let people know about SMART cars, and they really seem eager to learn.


Fresno City Hall

From there it was off to Fresno, where we learned just how difficult it can be to keep even six cars together. We got separated and headed off in a few different directions. Not good, but we did manage to meet up again in Fresno.

Yesterday morning, based on Tuesday's experience, we decided to split into smaller groups. The thought was that we would again meet up at the end of the day at our destination, which was Phoenix. That plan had pros and cons of course. There's something good to be said for the sight of six SMART cars traveling the highways of America in a group. The problem is that it is just too hard to stay together.

TEST 6 (a biggie): How is the SMART car on fast freeways?

I wanted to see how good my Garmin GPS is at finding a route through unfamiliar territory, before I trusted it to get me to New York after our split (for me to cover the Press Preview days of the New York International Auto Show). Upon hearing of the route it suggested, one well-traveled member of our group immediately expressed his strong reservations. Instead, he suggested that I follow his route, which my GPS said was 1 1/2 hours longer. As I recall, he expressed concern about such things as high wind gusts and grid-locked LA traffic. However, when it comes to driving I am kind of a gung ho kind of guy. If it has four wheels and a steering wheel, I want to put it through its paces -- heavy traffic, adverse conditions and all. The more challenging the conditions, the better. That would probably explain why I like autocrossing so much, because it rewards driving at the limit. I also have little fear when it comes to automobiles. I still clearly recall my utter elation when I got a ride in the passenger jump seat of a GTP race car at the Del Mar Grand Prix, back in the 90s. I was laughing like a hyena and loving every glorious minute of it as I lifted up in the seat on hard acceleration and sank way down on hard braking (despite being belted in). The thought that my drive on freeways in Southern California and Arizona might be a little dangerous was not a concern to me, and I figured that I'd have to hit an awful lot of traffic to lose my 1 1/2 hour time advantage, so I went.


Six Flags California

Along the way I got some great photo ops for the car. My first such stop was at Six Flags California.

Arriving in the area at around 3 PM, I did hit some stop and go traffic near Pasadena and other Southern California communities, but it only lasted for about 15 minutes in total so time-wise I guess that I got lucky. That works for me.

 
Electricity generation & SMART car under attack outside of Palm Springs, CA

He was certainly right about there being wind gusts along my route. A whole industry made up of high tech windmills has sprouted up around the Palm Springs area. However, I saw those as more photo ops.

The passes were long and steep, but while my car's fuel economy understandably suffered, it kept up with traffic at any speed I cared to go -- and I assure you that I was not moving slowly. There was ample power in reserve, albeit restrained, for acceleration even under those daunting circumstances.

I won't lie to you. I did experience wind buffeting, both from the wind itself and also when emerging from the leading wake of large semi-trailer trucks. But I experience similar buffeting in other cars too. It is no big deal, as long as I pay attention to my driving.


At the Patton Museum

At the top of one pass, I stopped for gas and discovered the Patton Museum, where I took a photo of my SMART car with a military tank in the background.


Metropolitan Nash & a SMART car

That wasn't even the best photo op there. As I drove towards the gas pumps I saw a Metropolitan Nash. For those of you old enough to remember, you probably recall how tiny that car looked in comparison to other cars of the day. Well, as tiny as the Metropolitan Nash looked back then, the SMART car is dwarfed by its length (but not height). The clever design of the SMART car proves that a car does not have to be lengthy to be roomy.

 
We're on TV in Phoenix

This morning we were up and out of our hotel by 6 AM, so as to take our SMART cars to a TV station. They did an interview, test drove a SMART car and taped a parade of cars as we all drove around in a small circle in the parking lot. I wonder if this will hit the national media by the time we get to New York (or perhaps it already has)? 

 

Next it was off to ZAP of Phoenix to give our SMART cars some TLC.

It is difficult to not get caught up in the excitement of these SMART cars. No wonder they are so popular in Europe in Canada. Thanks to ZAP, they are here in the U.S. too and people seem to be genuinely excited about that.


Me enjoying the Phoenix, AZ sunshine

Well that about brings you up to date from my end. Since we are going different routes, be sure to check out what the others have to say on the ZAP blog. You'll find it at www.zapworld.com/blog. I'm breaking off for New York solo, so it should be an especially interesting trip, considering that I have never driven cross country before. Wish me luck and check back here for more news.

As always, please share your stories and send your comments to AutoMatters@gmail.com. Enjoy the archives and more at www.AutoMatters.net. Drive safely and do join me again next time.

 

Copyright 2006 Jan R. Wagner #185 AutoMatters

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