In the summer of 1998, bright orange cranes speckled the Berlin skyline. Young Europeans flocked to the streets by the thousands for the dance party called Love Parade and, after dark, they disappeared inside the dark corridors of a club called Tresor, where Detroit techno pulsated until dawn. That summer was the first year the Smart car replaced the clunky Soviet-era East German Trabant as the car of choice on the Ku’Damm, the West Berlin thoroughfare. Nobody had seen a car like Smart—a tiny car that was many years in the making.
Fast-forward to Berlin 16 years later, where we witness the unveiling of the third generation Smart car at the Tempodrom event space. The concept of small-car mobility has gained traction in growing cities and the cultural divides from the massive wall that once separated West and East Berlin are all but erased by an influx of new Berliners and the result of delirious development. In the once moody and fractured streets of East Berlin, English seems more common as a first language and high-end boutiques and galleries draw a more moneyed, albeit cultured crowd to the Augustrasse. It’s an idea-filled, edgy city in flux that suits the image of Daimler Benz’s growing Smart brand.
The vibrant CEO Annette Winkler is the brains behind modern-day Smart. “To drive a Smart was always a statement,” she says. “Smart was always status-free.” Smart ForTwo expands on what a city car can be with practical and aesthetic improvements—starting with a more endearing, whimsical grille framed by larger headlamps and a pronounced hood that transforms its exterior silhouette. Technical upgrades like navigation and emergency automatic braking modernize Smart behind the screen. Engineering highlights for the 2016 model year include a much-needed double-clutch transmission and the option for a manual transmission in the US.
The new model is four inches wider than the current generation Smart, but essentially the same length, preserving its status as the easiest car to wedge into a tight parking space. Smart retains its rear-wheel drive, rear engine outfitting and two-tone color scheme. The single engine offered in the US is the new turbo-charged 3.0-liter engine that produces 90 horsepower and 100 pound-foot of torque. Smart says the turning radius on the new model has also improved, though we have yet to drive it.
For its flashy global introduction—which included demos from German gold medalist beach volleyball players—Smart spent ample time stressing its commitment to re-imagining what driving means. Smart is not just cars—its ebikes and car sharing programs like Car2Go, a popular app-based service that lets people find a car, drive it, park it and leave it for the next driver (similar to the US' Zipcar). We also tested out the super metro-friendly Smart ebikes powered by a 350-watt electric motor on a city ride to the Brandenburg Gate. The ebike has a range of 62 miles (or infinitely more miles if we used our legs to pedal and contribute to the regenerating process.)
Berlin is indeed a city on the move, very much alive with conversations about art, DIY ideas and techno beats. The capital for post-raving electronic dance music in the dark, defined by endless sessions at Berghain, Berliners—native and otherwise—have always taken their techno seriously, but they also have a wry sense of humor. Every now and then a song comes along that captures their taste for irony. This summer it's been “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by the duo Howling, made up the Australian vocals of Ry X and the filtered house beats of Berlin producer Frank Widemann, who co-owns the label Innervisions.
Howling played their cover of Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” live at the Innervisions open-air festival last summer. “It was ridiculous. A beach on the Spree River slammed with about 7,000 Berliners,” says Joshua Glazer, a dance music scholar living in Berlin. The label has answered the call by releasing the song on vinyl this summer. It’s a clever cover, very danceable and quite catching—kind of like Smart car fever.
Song of the Car matches music with automobiles, old and new. Appearing fortnightly on Cool Hunting, each feature takes a look at a car's distinct personality and pairs it with a suitable song.
Images courtesy of Smart