Rallying and Smart fortwo - those are words you'd never expect to see together - right? But it's no joke.
The fortwo made its world rally debut in the Targa Newfoundland. The only road rally of its kind in North America consists of 40 stages on both open roads and closed courses, covering 2,200 kilometres of the most challenging and picturesque roads of Newfoundland.
There's no denying the Smart fortwo cabriolet was an oddity among the vintage cars and muscle machines that dominate the 54 competitors; the cars included a 1965 Porsche 911 from Coburg, Germany, a 1964 Ford Falcon Sprint from Connecticut, a 1968 Ford Escort MKI from the Turks and Caicos Islands, a 1985 Mazda RX7 from Dublin, and a 2000 Subaru Impreza WRX STi from Britain.
Attendance was down this year because of the economy, but spirits still ran high. "It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on," says auto journalist and Targa Newfoundland co-founder Jim Kenzie.
There are two main divisions - Grand Touring, which is a time-speed-distance rally where speed isn't as important as precision, and Targa, a high-speed, performance-oriented race.
My Smart fortwo cabriolet faced some stiff competition in the Grand Touring category. There are 15 entries, including a 2004 Mazda3 Sport GT from Alberta, a 1965 Porsche 356 SC from New York and a 2009 Mini Cooper Clubman driven by Big Brothers/Big Sisters teammates Tom Thornton and Ron Bartleet.
Thornton, 72, became Bartleet's Big Brother 40 years ago. "Ron saw Targa on TSN and he said to me, 'What a blast that would be! I'm going to put that on my bucket list.' I said, 'Yeah, that would be really fun.' So he said, 'Let's do it!,'" Thornton says.
Bartleet interrupts, "Yeah, and every time something goes wrong, he keeps reminding me: 'I don't know how you talked me into this!' Then 20 minutes later. 'Oh, this is awesome!'" Of this year's rally, Thornton adds, "We've never done this before although we did a rally in Toronto with Big Brothers in 1977 and we placed first in it.
"But I don't think we're going to place anywhere near first from the way we're going right now. We just want to finish," laughs Thornton, referring to an earlier setback. His tire blew on a gravel road, forcing him to complete a stage on a run-flat tire. It cost him points, time and frustration.
During the five-day rally, co-driver/navigator Patrick Ah-Yu, a Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy instructor, shares the driving duties in the Smart with three journalists.
There's a set time and speed for each stage: Coming in below or above the time results in a penalty, which accumulates daily. On day one, a local CBC reporter gets 19 penalty points, even with a 30-second grace period. It pushes the Smart into second-last place.
The last spot belongs to a rented Dodge Avenger. The driver was racing in an Audi Quattro the day before, but slammed into a barrier at 90 kilometres an hour and totalled it. Mishaps like that are common. "There are only two kinds of rally drivers - those who have rolled over and those who will," says competitor and Targa Newfoundland co-founder Doug Mepham. I pray it doesn't happen to me.
On day two, I take the wheel of the Smart in Gander. My first few stages are perfect - I lose no points.
My last stage, however, is a different story. It's in a subdivision amid a series of crescents and sharp turns. The entire neighbourhood, including the town's mayor, cheers frantically on front lawns as the vehicles whip by in the blink of an eye. I gun it, hitting the throttle hard. But with only 68 lb-ft of torque, it's difficult to get up to speed fast. It costs me time and points; I pass the finish line with an average speed of 54 km/hr; because my target speed is 60 km, I'm dinged 48 points.
Disappointed, I change my tune after chatting with spectator Dave James. To say he's impressed with the Smart is an understatement. "It goes like stink! Off the line, it was faster than the Porsches and BMWs. We didn't know what it was. We didn't even get the name of the vehicle. … We were laughing and we stopped talking because we were shocked. It was surprising. It has lots of horsepower, I bet."
Told that the fortwo gets 70 hp from its 1.0-litre, inline-three-cylinder engine, he's surprised. "That's unbelievable! You should be very proud of it."
The Smart is a huge hit as it zigzags the island; kids, especially, flock to it. At an elementary school near Wesleyville, northeast of Gander, the students sit patiently as if posing for a class photo. I pull up, stop, and shout: "Come over and check out my car."
They hesitate for a second and then storm the Smart. "Wow - it's so cool!" "Can I sit inside?" They scream; tiny fingers flinging everywhere. We snap some photos - the Smart is barely visible.
Day two and the Smart improves its performance. In fact, the first leg is perfect. I cross the finish line, hitting my target time of 3:43 bang on. My target speed is 84.1 km; I'm clocked at 84.45.
The Smart's compact size and agile handling make it an easy route to conquer. At day's end, the Smart moves ahead by two cars in the rankings. On the final two days, a lifestyle writer takes over driving, but logs six minutes worth of penalty points.
But at least the Smart didn't finish last. Third last is not bad for the tiny contender's first big rally. Next year can only get better.