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At the wheel: Small car, big interest

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Ladd Dezendorf was sold when he saw a driver extract her Smart car from a parking space in Paris.

After a 14-month wait, he took possession of his 2008 Smart Passion a year ago. And the car has been turning heads in the Pawleys Island area ever since.

“You’re never lonely when you’re in that car,” said his wife, Jessica, who is the principal driver. “Everybody knows who you are.”

With a fuel rating of 33 mpg city and 41 mpg highway, the Smart Passion is the leader in its class. But that class includes high-octane two-seat sports cars.

Ladd said the car earns its name because of its combination of fuel economy, maneuverability and price. The Dezendorfs paid $14,600 for their car, which included power steering.

Sure, the hybrid Toyota Prius gets better mileage, but it also costs $10,000 more, Ladd said.

For himself, he would opt for a Mini. But that’s a gas-sipper with a premium price tag.

“We were looking for a small around-town car,” he said.

That was what inspired Mike Romanoff to buy a Smart car to park at his vacation home in Pawleys Plantation, said his daughter, Marna.

She and the Dezendorfs crossed paths and exchanged waves on the highway recently.

Romanoff said her father likes the car for running errands and because it can hold his golf clubs. She gives it “mixed reviews.”

“I don’t think it’s that safe on the open road,” she said. “It’s quick. It would be a great car to drive in a bigger city.”

She has just finished working for the Japanese consulate in Chicago, and is headed for Japan to study international relations. “They have a lot of small cars,” she said.

But she echoed the Dezendorfs’ experience as a Smart car driver in the land of the SUV.

“It draws a lot of attention,” Romanoff said. “It’s amazing.”

Smart, which is manufactured in France by Mercedes, takes that curiosity seriously. The Dezendorfs received information cards from the dealer to hand out.

The Smart Passion packs 70 horses under its rear hatch. The engine isn’t actually accessible to the inquisitive. The Dezendorfs have Baker Motors in Charleston do all the maintenance.

The 1 liter, 3 cylinder engine has a top speed of 90 mph. The Dezendorfs said it cruised comfortably at 70 mph on a road trip to Winston-Salem with their dog, Pixel, and their luggage.

“We don’t take much luggage,” Ladd said.

For passengers, the car is bigger on the inside than its 106-inch length implies. Ladd compares it to sitting in the protective roll cage of a larger car. In this case, the cage is the car.

“It’s surprising how roomy it is,” he said.

Still, the Smart car is only 10 inches longer that the golf cart the Dezendorfs drive to the beach from their home North Litchfield.

“You can put a lot of groceries in there,” Jessica said. And she also packs her golf clubs into the Smart car.

She didn’t have any concerns about safety. “It never occurred to me to be afraid until people asked me,” she said.

Driving the Smart car, it’s easy to forget that there is nothing much in front and barely a little bit more behind. The five-speed automatic shifts like a manual transmission, but with the software making the gear changes.

“It’s not as smooth as most American cars, but it’s the most efficient,” Ladd said.

And he has experience with efficiency. In 1974, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, he traded his Chrysler Imperial for a Ford Pinto.

But he admits to being an impulse shopper. He recently sold his Vespa scooter. “When I got back from Italy I just had to have one,” Ladd said.

“All boys like cars,” said Jessica, whose first car was a 1979 Plymouth Volaré that had 7,000 miles on it when she met Ladd in 1986.

Everyone likes the Smart car, the Dezendorfs said. No one’s ever turned down a ride.

After a year, the Dezendorfs often forget that the car is unique on local roads. “You ask, why are they smiling at us?” Ladd said. “You’re environmental. You’re one of them.”

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