A few months ago, the van that I have driven for these last several years decided it was tired and was not going to go anywhere anymore, and so my wife and I began researching and shopping for a new-to-us car. Now, I have bought many cars over the years, but usually the driving factor in the decision was not whether or not this was the “right” car, but whether it was the “right now” car. In other words, what drove our decision was the need for a car sooner rather than later.
This time, due to the generosity and love of two members of our congregation who loaned us a car for a month or so, we had the time to explore, and to decide what was the right car for us. We did a lot of online research. I stopped by the side of the road and wrote down phone numbers for cars with “For Sale” signs in the windows. I have never in my life bought a new car, and so I began the process convinced that we would be buying another used vehicle. If I wanted to be fancy, I would buy my used car from a dealership…
As we moved into the process, I realized that there was a new factor in our decision… I was serving a congregation, and not as an Interim Minister. There are a few big decisions in our lives where we have the opportunity to show our values, and for a preacher who has been preaching those values to a particular congregation, you better believe that said congregation is paying attention to how the minister lives the values they have been preaching. Whereas before I might like to think that I would make a choice based upon my values, there is a new valance in the decision knowing that over 200 sets of eyes will also be evaluating my choice of automobile…
And believe you me… I was lobbied by the Prius faction in the congregation…
As our research continued, I began to fall in love with a vehicle that surprised not only my family and friends, but myself. On a whim one evening, I found myself perusing the Smart Car website. The price and the gas mileage might have been the spark of initial curiosity. That it is sold in the U.S. by Mercedes (and backed by their maintenance program) was also interesting. By the time I found out that it operates in both automatic transmission (for Sandy) and manual transmission (for me), I knew I had found our car. The test drive confirmed it. I was sold. Sandy was sold. In fact, during the week, Sandy loves it so much she drives it most days… Not because I don’t love the Smart Car, ( I certainly do) but because I love her so much I want her to drive our best car.
So, in May Sandy and I leased a 2013 Smart Passion Coup. In a few years, they are coming out with a four door version, and at that point we might just become an “all Smart Car” family.
Congregants were fascinated by it (as well they should be). Several Sundays in a row I had informal “meet the Minister’s Smart Car” gatherings in the parking lot, where I gave a tour of the rear mounted engine, the traction and stability control, the 8 airbags, the racing roll cage… and where each of them sat in it and realized what I did… it really feels much bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. Sandy and I have nicknamed ours “the Tardis”. We are jokingly considering having a new set of panels made for it so that it will look like a blue British policebox…
“Yes, it drives fine on the highway… I’ve had it up to 90 mph, but don’t tell anyone.”
“I know I’m a pretty big guy, but I fit in it just fine.”
“It has plenty of cargo space, so long as you are not trying to use it to move.”
“No, there is no place for a child’s seat… but we don’t have kids, you see.”
“It has so many safety features it is probably safer to drive than your car.”
Etc… not only have I answered these questions in the gatherings in the church parking lot, but in just about any parking lot that I’ve taken it to, as the Smart Car is about the best new way to meet people I have ever found. People run across parking lots to ask questions. They roll down their windows and yell questions across lanes of traffic at lights. They follow me into stores to ask questions. While that has been wonderful for my extroverted self, it has taken a bit of adaptation for my introverted wife…
And that is what I really want to write about in this article… the fact that driving a Smart Car has led to some interesting observations about humanity. I have always been a student of humanity, and if I had known from the outset that the Smart Car would be a window into that study, we’d have had one years ago.
Here are a few of the observations about humanity that I’d like to share:
- People in sports cars really do not like being passed by a Smart Car. It is as if the smallest guy at the gym just lifted more weight than the dedicated weight lifter. I passed a Porsche on the 101 Freeway a few weeks ago, and the next thing I knew he was in the fast lane blowing past me at about 95 mph, glaring. He glared at me so much he did not see the California Highway Patrol officer that he soon had an intimate conversation with. So, the Smart Car is good for bringing people together.
- People in extra-large SUV’s (such as the Ford Expedition or the Hummer) seem morally offended that the Smart Car even exists. They show that moral outrage by driving as aggressively as possible whenever they are within a block of said Smart Car. At first I thought this was just my imagination… that sharing a lane with such a large vehicle makes it seem that the drivers of larger vehicles were driving aggressively, but that was until I noticed the glares and the occasional finger gestures that come from the driver’s windows of said cars. So, I have a message for you large vehicle drivers out there… just because you paid a lot more in sales taxes when you bought your behemoth, and just because you pay so much more in gasoline taxes to keep your behemoth on the road, that does not mean you own the road anymore than I do. I’m just “Smart”er than you are, and it is time you just accept it.
- Smart Car drivers flash their lights at one another when they pass… you just won’t understand until you are in the club. Instant Solidarity!
- Driving a Smart Car is as close as I will ever come to being a celebrity. Everywhere I go, people take pictures. They come up and ask if they can sit in it. They follow me into stores. I drove onto the Army Reserve Center where my unit drills, and it was amazing to watch all eyes in a formation of soldiers track my car like I was a General Officer arriving for a surprise inspection. At traffic lights, drivers around me are late for the green light because they are looking at the Smart Car, not watching the road. I’ve always wondered what it might be like to drive a Tesla, or a Noble, or any of the other SuperCars… now I know.
- Mixing the Smart Car with other parts of my identity can be hard for people to do. I pulled into a gas station on the Pacific Coast Highway to get a soda (I didn’t need gas, you see). I was headed home from a weekend drill, and so I was in my Army Combat Uniform (digital camouflage). The sight of a fairly big soldier getting out of a Smart Car led about half of the people filling up their cars to fall down laughing, and the others just to stare, unable to compute. I just smiled and went in to get my Cream Soda.
- There are cultural differences around how people react the Smart Car. Let me say first that I live in a majority Latino neighborhood. As the primary industry of Ventura County is agriculture, many of my neighbors work year round in farming. I have been fascinated by how many of the men of my apartment complex at first react with a bit of machismo around a guy driving such a small car… and then when we talk about it and I show them around the Smart Car, they love it. One told his friend “I’d rather drive this than have to ride with you all the time!”
- Children of all cultures love the Smart Car. We have a lot of children where we live, and the Smart Car was an instant celebrity. First time we drove it home, we gathered a crowd. I have to keep telling them “No, it is a real car, so you can’t drive one till you are sixteen”.
- People are most amazed by how much cargo you can get in the Smart Car. Every time we go to the grocery store, we end up with a small crowd of onlookers as we put a week’s worth of groceries in the back. Once, we went to the pet store, and bought a new scratch-post for our cat, a new water fountain, a big bag of kitty litter. We already had bags and boxes from several stores in the back, which we took out so we could re-arrange. As Sandy and I fit everything we had bought into the back, and even had room to spare, we received a small round of applause from the onlookers. Now I understand Olympic Athletes a bit better. There is some human desire to see someone accomplish the seemingly impossible.
- We human beings cling to our preconceptions and perceptions. I remember a guy who came over to me at a gas station on base (I do occasionally have to put gas in the Smart Car). His stated position was to prove I was an idiot for driving a Smart Car. He first said that it wasn’t a real car because it couldn’t drive on the highway, to which I said it certainly can, I drove it on the highway to get there. He then said it had to be unsafe, at which point I showed him the 8 airbags, the high-tension steel roll cage, and the traction and stability control. He then said it was too small for a big guy to be comfortable in, to which I pointed out I had at least 2 inches on him in every direction, and I had leg-room to spare. As he went away grumbling about it being a “dumb” car and not a Smart Car, I was reminded of all the conversations I’ve had on the meaning of scripture with some conservative Christians, and sighed.
- The last observation is one about me… I had forgotten that driving can be fun. Driving has always been a chore for me, an ends to a means. I drive to get places. I’ve always found people who drive for pleasure to be a bit odd. Not anymore. I love driving the Smart Car. I could not define why, it is just fun. And, anything that adds a bit more fun in my life is something I’ve realized I need.
There are many other observations, but in short what I think the Smart Car has done for me is to change my position and perspective. Like standing on top of the table and looking again at a room you’ve spent hours in, it has brought me to see the world around me a bit differently, and for that I am truly thankful and blessed.
Yours in Faith,