A smart way to travelAll it took was one short ride in a Mercedes-Benz smart car for Jim Van Winkle to fall in love.
By: Regan Carstensen, The Republican Eagle
All it took was one short ride in a Mercedes-Benz smart car for Jim Van Winkle to fall in love.
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Red Wing resident was taking a spin with his friend, who had recently purchased the vehicle, when he noticed he had a surprising amount of leg room, arm room and general space. Being comfortable in a Hummer would be one thing, but being comfortable in a vehicle only 5 feet wide and 9 feet long was a bit more unbelievable.
Still, Van Winkle was sold. What really captured his heart and sealed the deal was hearing that a smart car regularly gets upwards of 40 miles to the gallon.
“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got to get one of these,’” Van Winkle said, adding that his previous vehicle was averaging only 17 mpg.
Since 1997, smart cars have filled the streets of France, Italy, Spain and England, but it wasn’t until 2008 that they made their way overseas to the United States. Soon after they did, Van Winkle had his hands on one of his own.
He initially purchased a 2008 smart car, but has since traded up to a more recent model. The switch to a vehicle with better gas mileage proved to be the right choice for Van Winkle because of his daily commute from Red Wing to Rochester.
“I figure the amount of money I save in gas has paid for the car,” he said.
Van Winkle said his is one of the few smart cars in Red Wing, but come Friday that number will be significantly larger — by about 10 times.
More than 35 smart cars are expected to be in town for the weekend as part of a rally organized by the Midwest Chapter of Smart Cars of America. The group features drivers from around the region who have gotten to know each other through their common interest in smart cars. In 2009, they decided it would be fun to hold a weekend get-together and ended up planning their activities for the Wisconsin Dells area.
“We were going to have about 37 cars show up and it got to be Friday night and more than 100 cars showed up,” Van Winkle said.
The success of the event helped it evolve into an annual rally, and this year Red Wing is the place to be.
Van Winkle has been planning activities for the entire weekend, starting with a meet-and-greet and catered supper at Colvill Park on Friday night. A Mercedes-Benz representative is scheduled to speak.
The rally will include a Saturday morning drive along the Mississippi River, heading down through Wisconsin and crossing over into Wabasha for a picnic lunch. Drivers will hold races with battery-powered smart cars that afternoon.
Sunday will feature a relaxing morning spent at Bay Point Park, where community members are more than welcome to stop and check out the smart cars and ask any questions they might have. After all, the owners are used to the attention.
“We compare owning one of these cars to being a rock star,” Van Winkle joked. “You can’t fill up with gas without getting asked 20 questions about it.”
Van Winkle said none of the owners at the rally minds answering questions, but he doesn’t recommend the vehicle to someone who prefers not to be bothered.
“If you’re a real private and shy person, don’t get one of these cars,” he said.
In addition to their unique shape and smaller-than-average frame, smart cars vary from more common automobiles because of their artistic qualities. The outside panels of the vehicle are made to be changed out, so owners can get creative and come up with a personal look.
The inventive option will likely make the smart cars stand out in Red Wing this weekend — if seeing 35 tiny cars in one location wasn’t already enough to catch someone’s attention, that is.
“It’s pretty awesome when you see a mile of smart cars going down the road,” Van Winkle said.