Heads turned as John Robinson drives his diminutive Smart car along U.S. 1. Is it a shrunken minivan? An oversized Hot Wheels?
The University of Maryland professor pulls up alongside a sport utility vehicle, and lengthwise, the Smart was about a third of its size. A construction worker gazes so intently he almost walks into a moving crane. Another driver whips out his cell phone camera to shoot the tiny vehicle.
Robinson smiles. He seems to enjoy the attention generated by his car - which at just over 8 feet long is 4 feet shorter than a Mini Cooper - so much so he no longer bemoans that it took seven years to secure one to use in this country.
This despite the fact that Robinson is a top expert on time usage, having devoted his career to studying, hour by hour, how Americans spend their days and nights. But the Smart car has helped shift his attention from time to space, namely the amount of unused space people drive around in.
"The whole point of doing this is to confront some of the environmental issues that come up in ordinary automobiles," Robinson, 71, says. "About 90 percent of trips are taken alone. Why are we carrying around all these back seats in our cars?"
Robinson bought the car in May, his third, actually, after buying two Smart cars several years ago that are idling in California because he's been unable to register them.
The car's efficiency and design appeal to Robinson, a graying, bookish man so conscientious of time that he deliberately arrives at meetings five minutes late, since studies show most folks don't arrive promptly.
Now while parallel parking he doesn't have to worry about every spot being taken. "Large cars are just a waste of space and energy," he says in a low, professorial tone. "In an urban environment, you take advantage of any opportunity of space."
Smart cars are nothing new: Robinson saw one in Paris in 1999, one year after DaimlerChrysler began building the cars in France in conjunction with timepiece maker Swatch (Smart stands for "Swatch Mercedes art"). But they are not easy to get on this side of the Atlantic, although that may change: A German newspaper reported recently that Daimler Chrysler will soon announce plans to sell the car in the United States next year.
Returning home in 1999, Robinson began looking into how to get one. He checked Web sites, made dozens of phone calls and visited Europe again.
Eventually his persistence led to his purchasing two 2002 models for $15,000 each from a French dealer shipping them to California via Canada.
"The shipping costs for two were the same as for one, so I bought two," says Robinson. The cars were shipped to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Canadian customs officials initially refused to allow them in.
"I pointed out that their Department of Transportation had on its Web site that the Smart car was the perfect solution for the future of transportation problems in Canada," says Robinson. "Eventually they changed their minds, and they allowed it through customs, and I moved them to California. But then we started working on American customs; it got more difficult."
Government restrictions - particularly emissions standards - have kept Smart cars from being sold widely in the United States.
For example, the car cannot be registered in California, a state with emission standards higher than that of the Environmental Protection Agency. Nor can it be registered in states that follow California's standards.
EPA spokesman John Millett says California's emissions standards exceed that of the federal allowance in part because of the Clean Air Act, which allows the smog-prone state to have more authority over its air quality.
"They are incrementally more stringent as far as allowing nitrogen oxide emissions," says Millett. "There are four other states that have adopted California standards: Maine, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts."
EPA issues also sidelined local dealer JK Technologies, which had planned to sell the Smart car two years ago.
"We have to calibrate the car's electronic control units to meet U.S. standards for nitric oxide and particulates, the tiny particles that come out of the tailpipe," says Jonathan Weisheit, chief engineer for JK Technologies. He added that the company plans to start selling the cars in October, with prices beginning at $20,000.
Robinson's initial investment was ultimately relegated to storage.
His experience is far from uncommon.
Robinson remained determined to secure a Smart car to drive. He discovered Zapworld, a dealer headquartered in California that specializes in fuel-efficient vehicles such as the Smart car.
It retrofits the cars in California to meet U.S. standards, then ships them to branches throughout the country. The nearest branch to Robinson was in New Hampshire; he purchased a 2002 model there for $30,000 and drove it home.
He doesn't know what he's going to do about the cars in California; he has a vacation home there and hopes that one day he'll be able to drive the cars on the West Coast.
For now, the professor is glad that his investment paid off after seven years and boasts of the cars' amenities and gadgets as if he were a kid with a much-desired Christmas toy.
For starters, there's the gas mileage: The EPA lists the 2002 model as getting 40 miles per gallon on the highway and in the city. The car has a 9.5-gallon tank.
Weisheit says diesel Smart cars are even better on fuel. The 2005 and 2006 diesel models get 64 miles per gallon in the city and 75 on the highway, and have an 8.6-gallon tank.
"You can run around for a week for about $12-$18 dollars' worth," he says. "Can you imagine driving all the way to Ocean City and back on $12?"
Robinson says he's satisfied with his 2002 model. He says it handles well (driving back from New Hampshire, he drove as fast as 85 mph, he says), and parking is a breeze. He says it's easy to get in and out of the car, even though he's 6 feet tall.
His model is a convertible. The car has both automatic and manual transmission and moves from one to the other with the push of a button.
He also points out that the car is built to absorb impact like a billiard ball. Officials at Smart USA liken it to a nut protected by a hard shell. They say the car's steel frame and recyclable plastic body panels are constructed to cushion a blow from any angle, and the detachable bumpers are made of a scratch-resistant, rust-resistant material.
"Some people change the color of the bumpers throughout the year," says Robinson. "One dealer I visited in Britain told me that one smart car was hit by a Land Rover and, like a billiard ball, it bounced rather than collapsed."
The engine is in the rear of the car, so there's more leg room up front.
But what you gain in space there, you lose in the back. The trunk is tiny. Weisheit, though, says, "You can put five to six full shopping bags in the trunk area. My golf clubs go right in, no problem at all."
The only trouble Robinson has had with the car came when he was driving home after his purchase; he couldn't get the convertible top to work properly as it began to rain heavily.
After a few failed attempts, he pulled over at a gas station in New Jersey, and when the attendant couldn't get the top to work, Robinson called the dealer who sold him the car.
"I tried talking him through it," says Scott Adams of McFarland Ford in Exeter, N.H. "Then I just asked for the station attendant and told him how to do it."
Since then, the professor says, the Smart car has been problem-free, but he's concerned about routine maintenance because it didn't come with an owner's manual in book form. "It came with a DVD," he says, "but it doesn't work in my player."
He's busy trying to secure a paper manual, and for good reason. One of the most difficult maintenance procedures for a Smart car is an oil change. The car doesn't have a drain plug; oil is changed by a device that vacuums it out and pumps it back in.
"But the key to a Smart is that you absolutely must keep the oil level at exactly what they say," says Weisheit. "You absolutely cannot overfill the motor, or you will cause serious damage to it immediately. That's the only Achilles' heel with the Smart."
Robinson says it's worth it. Now accustomed to all the attention, he drives around prepared: He has a sheet of paper that lists the cost, mileage and Adams' number. The information is printed multiple times on the sheet, and Robinson tears pieces off as if they were coupons.
Still, he says that he doesn't expect many others to follow suit and buy a space-conscious Smart, despite the benefits.
"People are so used to having a big car," Robinson says.