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Of course, Alaska is not Beverly Hills. There are fewer convertibles in Alaska than any other state, and even fewer Smart ForTwos! European’s first arrived in Alaska around 1741. Now, the very first European Smart cars are doing the same. The car with the smiling face is making its mark on the "Last Frontier State" and the car is of course the Smart Fortwo.

Alaskans own and drive cars and trucks that anyone else in the United States does: Hondas, Chevys and Fords. Many drive pickups and SUVs as well. However, the Smart cars time has now come for our 49th state. Smart cars appear on Anchorage streets.

German micro-minis attract lots of attention

There isn't much to a Smart car, which measures four and a half feet shorter than a VW Beetle and could almost hide inside of a Hummer.

Nor are there many Smart cars in Alaska to talk about. They may be fabulously popular in parking-space-challenged Europe -- where German manufacturer Mercedes Benz sells the little micro-cars at $12,000 apiece -- but most Alaskans have probably never seen one.

At least that's the impression UAA political science professor Diddy Hitchins gets whenever she takes her new Smart ForTwo convertible out for a spin. The little car is a magnet for gawkers.

"When I'm driving, I have people driving after me," Hitchins said after one such outing in Anchorage. "I have people waving at me, tooting at me. And when I park, I have half a dozen people come up to speak to me every time."

That never happened in her old Jeep Cherokee.

In at least one respect, Hitchins isn't alone. Lots of other Alaskans -- now paying the highest price for gasoline in the nation -- have lately been downsizing their cars, too, parking their big pickups and SUVs and opting for something smaller.

At Kendall Toyota near downtown Anchorage, the giant 6,000-pound Sequoia sport utility vehicles are almost begging for buyers, according to general manager Mike McKean. At the same time, though, he's able to sell a 2,400-pound Yaris nearly as fast as the little sedans roll in.

Buyers accustomed to larger cars always wonder at the outset just how secure they'll feel driving down the Seward Highway in a modest hatchback when a big rig bears down from behind. Hitchins wondered about that too.

Growing up in England in the 1950s and '60s, she learned to drive in a Mini, one of the earliest sub-compacts, which felt absolutely fragile to her whenever she ventured onto the high-speed motor ways and got "buffeted about" by passing lorries.

The Smart ForTwo, by comparison, is supposed to be different, with its passenger "safety cell" encased in high-strength steel with specially engineered "crumple zones" that protect the cabin. Standard-sized 15-inch wheels and electronic traction control provide a stable ride. Front and side air bags are standard equipment.

In April, technicians with the National Highway Transportation Safety Board crash-tested the redesigned 2008 model and awarded it four stars out of five for frontal protection for the driver and three stars for the passenger. In the side crash test, the NHTSB gave it five stars.

If you have any questions regarding the Smart Fortwo send us an email at: Smart Car Questions

Hitchins says she initially grew interested in the Smart car in London, where she and her husband maintain a summer apartment. Apart from its fuel economy (the EPA rates it at 36 mpg), low emissions and ease of parking, she was attracted by the fact that it's the only vehicle that doesn't have to pay London's "congestion fee."

She test-drove one and found its interior surprisingly roomy, at least for two people. And though it's short, it's not low.

"You're actually sitting up higher than in most cars," Hitchins says. "And you don't feel fragile, because you have no sense you're in a small car."

Maybe so, but that was in civilized England. How would the Smart car fare in America, let alone the winters of Alaska? So far so good, Hitchins says.

She bought hers in Portland, Ore., in May (there are no dealers in Alaska) and immediately tested it on the highways.

"Coming up the freeway to Seattle, I purposely put myself in between these two great big semis.... and I didn't get wind-buffeting at all," she says. "It sticks to the road. It's absolutely firm."


And don't even get her started on how easy it is to park in downtown Anchorage, where she happily slips into spaces where no one else can fit. (The manufacturer's brochure includes pictures of two Smart cars parking bumper to bumper within a single parking space.)

"The nice thing is -- when you park in a regular parking space and you center yourself -- there's almost no chance that other people are going to bang into you," Hitchins says.

Moreover, her Smart car and her husband's big Jeep Grand Cherokee fit comfortably, bumper to bumper, inside the Hitchinses new single-car garage. OK, but that still leaves the test of Alaska's winter.

Time will tell, Hitchins said.

She's reassured by knowing Smart cars already have a proven winter track record in Germany and Canada, which get a fair share of snow themselves. All she needs now is for her personalized license plates to show up in the mail.

What will they say?


Partly it's a celebration of her life-long love of turtles, Hitchins said. And partly a statement about her car.

"It really does feel like you're in a shell," she said. "Like I'm carrying my house on my back."

Source: [The Anchorage Daily News By GEORGE BRYSON]

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