Like most OppositeLock readers, I have several cars of my own, I like to drive them, and I actually enjoy taking care of them myself. Thus, despite being being a city-dwelling millennial, I am well outside the typical demographic targeted by car-sharing services. Still, I like to try new things, and when Car2Go expanded into my neighborhood a short while ago, offering free membership and 30 minutes of driving time, I signed up anyway, just to give it a go.
For the uninitiated, Car2Go is a service similar to ZipCar and the like. Signing up gets you a card that will let you use their fleet of blue-and-white Smart ForTwos at an all-inclusive rate of $0.39 per minute. Unlike ZipCar, however, you don't have to return the car to its allocated spot. Instead, you can just rock up to any available car, drive it wherever you want, then park it in any city-owned parking space when you're done. The fleet is large enough that you're never more than a couple of blocks away from one, and the park-anywhere arrangement means that car availability follows commuting flows, with cars moving between workplaces and residential areas as people do. A smartphone app and website show a map of available cars, and allow you to reserve a car for 30 minutes while you make your way to it. All in all, it's an excellent idea, and works really well.
After missing the bus home from work, I thought that I would put my free minutes to use. My first attempt at using the car locator app directed me to an empty parking space, but after refreshing the view and trying again, it worked a treat, finding a car a short distance away. After touching my card to the windshield-mounted reader, 986MJK, a somewhat dirty Smart ForTwo with 5000 miles on it, unlocked and became mine, welcoming me by name in a slightly creepy electronic voice as I opened the door. A quick briefing on the in-dash touchscreen explained how everything worked, and I was off. Easy!
Full disclosure: Car2Go was so desperate for me to drive this that I had to sign up online and wait for a member card to arrive in the mail, then miss my bus and go looking for an available car.
It's a love-it-or-hate-it thing. That being said, I rather like them – they're distinctive, and a little bit 'cute' without being embarrassing. When you get up close, it's amazing just how small they actually are, too. Those wheels are TINY!
I'm not sure if the Car2Go interior is any different to the regular ForTwo, but it makes a lot of sense for a shared car. It's spartan, with rubber floor mats, vinyl seats and hard plastics, but everything still has a high-quality feel to it. Interestingly, the ignition switch is tucked between the gear lever and hand brake, Saab-style. Not the most immediately obvious location for a car that will be driven by unfamiliar drivers (same goes for the HVAC controls hidden between the air vents), but it made me smile.
The interior is TARDIS-like, feeling much roomier than you would expect in such a tiny car. The seating position is high-up, with the tall windscreen and large windows giving the cabin the airy feel of a much larger car. Still, it's strange to be able to touch the rear window from the driver's seat. There is a small luggage area behind the front seats that is accessible from the rear hatch. I couldn't figure out how to get the hatch open, but it's easy enough to reach behind the seats to get things in and out. It's not as though you're going to be hauling furniture with it, anyway.
With 70 horsepower on tap from its rear-mounted 1 litre 3-pot, the ForTwo could never be described as fast. However, for normal city driving, it is perfectly acceptable, especially since the car only weighs 800 kg. However, attempts at sustained rapid acceleration will be thwarted by the asthmatic engine and remarkably dull-witted transmission (more on that later). I haven't taken one out on the highway, but I can't imagine doing so would be a particularly enjoyable experience.
Stopping power is entirely acceptable, if not remarkable. However, it loses points for awkward pedal placement. The pedal pivots at the floor, rather than above, kind of like an old VW, and is mounted very high up. You get used to it after a while, but it still feels incredibly awkward and yields a slightly disconcerting pedal feel.
Apparently, this car has some form of suspension. However, its presence did not make itself known during my time with the car. Driving on any rough surface (and, in Minneapolis, that basically means "a road") is a bone-shattering experience, made all the worse by the tiny wheels and ultra-short wheelbase. On the upside, all that vibration seemed to have no impact on the interior, nor were there any noticeable signs of body flex.
The upshot of the stiff suspension and short wheelbase, of course, is entertaining handling. It is nimble, amusingly twitchy, and quite grin-inducing, although I suspect that its high center of gravity may limit the amount of fun that one could have – notably, there's no way to turn the stability control off.
Since I was only driving to work, and I wasn't sure of how much telemetry the car has (it did repeatedly scold me for accelerating too hard), I didn't push it terribly hard, but the potential for fun is definitely there.
Smart's single-clutch automated manual transmission gets a lot of hate, and I was interested to know whether it was as bad as everybody says it is. In a word, yes. It really is a shocker, and I'm quite amazed that somebody thought that it was a good idea.
Shift times, especially upshifts, are agonisingly long, and, unless you let off the throttle at the exact moment that it decides to shift, are accompanied by an alarming lurch. The 1-2 upshift is particularly bad, and tends to leave you briefly un-powered right in the middle of intersections. Thankfully, Tiptronic-style sequential gear selection is available, and if you co-ordinate shifting and throttle motion as you would with a real manual transmission, it is possible to drive it smoothly, with a bit of practice.
Like most automated manuals, it emulates the 'creep' of a torque-converter automatic by slipping the clutch as you let off the brakes. Not a bad idea, but due to the lack of torque from the tiny engine, it feels as though it leaves the car on the verge of stalling.
It gets one point, since it does actually manage to transmit power to the wheels (at least when it isn't changing gears with a smoothness reminiscent of the first time you drove a manual), but there's no excuse for how badly it does so. On the first Smarts that came out, in the late '90s, I could understand the shifting being a bit rough around the edges – automated manual transmissions were cutting-edge technology, and there were plenty of bugs to iron out. But today, although its competitors are still not quite perfect, they are nowhere near as shockingly bad as this.
A touch screen in the center of the dash offers radio and navigation, as well as being the main interaction point with the Car2Go system. Aside from that, the only 'toys' are heated seats, a nice touch for Minnesota winters. Basic, yes, but it is all you need for a quick cross-town trip.
Sound quality from the radio was reasonably good, and local stations were all pre-tuned and available as buttons on the touch screen. There looked to be Bluetooth and a 3.5mm audio input, but I didn't try them. It certainly isn't audiophile-quality, but it is quite acceptable.
However, the score is brought down by the dreadful engine noise. Three-cylinder engines are not known for their refinement, and this one is no exception, made worse by its location right behind the seats, and a distinct lack of insulation. It always seems to be either struggling at low revs, or revving far too high, with an unpleasant growl that would be more at home in a moped than a car with a roof and doors.
In my case, Car2Go does not make a whole lot of sense. I live and work in areas well-served by bus routes that cost less than I'd pay to drive a Car2Go, and beyond that, I would much rather take my own car. Still, I could see myself making use of it if I miss a bus late at night when they don't run so often, or in the somewhat-likely case that my car is broken.
On the other hand, if I were someone who didn't own a car, it would be a great way to get around beyond the range of bus routes and cycleways. The $0.39/minute rate includes fuel, parking and insurance, and the ability to just leave the car anywhere, rather than in designated spots, makes it much more convenient than other car-share services. For daily use, it doesn't make sense, but for the occasional trip – and there are plenty of people who only drive a couple of times a week – it seems to be quite a reasonable option.
Thinking just as myself, I wouldn't score it very highly on value. But for your stereotypical urban millennial who doesn't own a car but still sometimes needs to drive somewhere, it makes a lot of sense. Plus, with its entertainingly nimble handling, who knows, maybe somebody might buy a real car after having only been exposed to beigemobiles their entire life.
I'd never buy one, but aside from the ludicrously awful transmission, I quite liked it.