We just returned from a week-long vacation, and on a lark, we rented a Mercedes-built Smart Car for a day just to see what what we were missing by not being on the waiting list for one here in Dallas. The Smart Car, for those of you who aren’t car jockeys or desperate to squeeze every last mile from your gas tank, is basically a overgrown, gasoline-powered, duded-up golf cart extremely popular in Europe and just making its debut in the U.S. for between $12,000-$17,000 or so.

First off, the Smart Car is a great ice-breaker if you want to meet people. We drove it for a day and spent much of the time talking with people who wanted to know what the car was like. While filling it up with gas (rated at 33/41 mpg, but we drove it less than 100 miles, so we can’t comment on that), an ambulance driver popped his head in the open window and said: "I hope I don’t see you in one of these sometime in the future", referring to the car’s pretty-small frame. Another guy, a parking lot attendant, just about forgot to collect the parking fee while he was looking inside the vehicle: "I want to save gas money, too," he says, "but geez, this is going too far."

Honestly, the car seemed pretty cheaply put together: It was pretty much plastic on the dash and the doors felt kind of flimsy, but the car has done extremely well in safety ratings and crash tests. We were driving around Las Vegas with daytime temperatures over 105 degrees, and the Smart Car’s air-conditioner could barely keep up, plus the AC was so noisy we could barely hear the tinny-sounding radio without jacking up the sound to an otherwise deafening level. And the automatic-transmission car we drove had an odd hesitation while shifting from first to second gear, and it sputtered a bit every time we pressed on the accelerator after stopping at a red light. Once we hit 40 or 45 mph, though, the car had a very smooth ride.

Still, inside there was plenty of room for two people, and the seats were comfortable if not cushy. And we were driving a convertible, with the top sliding back and forth effortlessly and providing a choice of either a sunroof or full open-sky top. I’ve seen a few driving around Dallas, and I think they would be great vehicles if your driving is limited to city streets, but I’d be leery of driving around on I-30, I-35, Central Expressway or any other freeways (full disclosure: we didn’t): No matter what the safety ratings say, I’d be scared.

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