Kelly Donoughe’s 2009 Smart fortwo passion has a name: Mrs. Einstein. The smallest four-wheel car available for sale in the U.S., she originally called it Einstein for the physicist. When she added eyelashes to the car’s front headlights, she renamed it.
A grad student in transportation engineering at Virginia Tech, Donoughe purchased the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive two-seater (fortwo, get it?) in 2009. The dealership in Maryland paid her travel expenses to get the car. Since then, Donoughe has put 55,000 miles on it., even taking it on a Smart cruise with about 100 Smarts riding with police escort, complete with synchronized traffic signal control. “That was pretty awesome,” she remembers.
Some of those miles have come from trips to visit her parents in Florida, where she grew up. The car doesn’t have the fastest acceleration, but it can certainly handle highway speeds. How fast can the car go? “I probably shouldn’t say,” she responds.
The car is less than nine feet long (106.1 inches) and can fit sideways in most parking spots (something that’s not legal in all jurisdictions). Despite its diminutive size, the car is chock full of technology. The passion, the mid-level trim of the fortwo model, has anti-lock brakes, electronic stability and front and side airbags. It has an automated manual transmission, allowing Donoughe to drive it like an automatic or use paddles to shift gears manually.
Because the car is small, it has to have special safety designs, the most obvious of which is its Tridion cell. A rigid, steel cage composed partly of high-strength steel, the cell encloses the cabin and makes up most of the car’s chassis. The design of the cell helps transfer energy during collisions from the point of impact through the entire body.
The cell is hot-dipped galvanized and powder coated, allowing some of it to be exposed to the elements. That exposed section, visible on the car’s profile as a swooping C-like shape which runs from the front tires to the back tires, up behind the doors and over the top of the doors to the windshield, is often painted a contrasting color to the car’s plastic panels.
That visible part of the cell on Donoughe’s Smart is black, while the body panels are silver. She chose those colors because they are most similar to the black-and-white photographs taken of Einstein. The body panels are easily removable. Smart owners sometime trade them, as if swapping baseball cards. Other safety features include sensitive seat belt tensioners and head rests integral to the seats.
The car’s engine is one-liter with three cylinders and 70hp. Donoughe performs maintenance on the car herself, changing oil and checking fluids. The car does require premium gas. Even though it is small, it has storage space behind the seats and above the rear engine. The wheels are 15 inches and alloy, with wider tires in the back than in the front, adding to the car’s sporty appearance.
The Smart doesn’t ride close to the road, but because of the short distance between axles, you do notice bumpy terrain. When you go over speed bumps, Donoughe said, “as soon as you go up and over with one set of wheels, you go up and over with the next set of wheels.”
The car gets close to 40 mpg, a big improvement over Donoughe’s previous vehicle, an older S10. Even thought the Smarts aren’t very common in the New River Valley, more than 1.5 million are made each year in a Daimler factory in France. Smart is a division of Daimler. The cars are sold in more than 40 countries on all six continents.
Donoughe decided to acquire the car in part because, she’s “always had an affinity for unique cars.” Her first vehicle was a 1949 Chrysler Windsor. It took five grown men to push it down a hill from the field where it had been sitting. She and her father spent a year restoring that rusty relic, which was named Tetanus.
Donoughe has been at Tech for six years, specializing in transportation safety. She will receive her doctorate in about a year. If she gets a job outside of the NRV and moves away, she likely won’t bring the Smart with her, so there may be a Mrs. Einstein for sale in the near future.
Text by Karl H. Kazaks
Photos by Nathan Cooke