When Craig Hoi Pong darts around in his car, fellow motorists stop and stare.
They check out his 17-inch rims, lowered suspension, LED blue-hued lights and yellow rear spoiler.
His isn’t a muscle, hot rod or a classic car. It’s a two-seat Smart car — on steroids.
“Gas was killing me and I thought, ‘Let me get one of these Smart cars and customize and see how it goes,’” said the 35-year old, who owns Hoi Pong Customs shop in Sunrise, Fla. “I’m not at the mercy of the gas pump (now), but I wanted it to look cool.”
The Toyota Prius hybrid, the Fiat 500 and Smart models might be smaller in length and pack less horsepower, but that’s not stopping their owners from going the extra mile to personalize them — or from showing them off on city streets and at automotive events.
At a recent Friday cruise-in event in a Davie, Fla., parking lot, a souped-up black Mini Cooper looked noticeably out of place next to a much-larger 1960 Chevy Impala and late-model Ford pickup. Now owners of small customized cars have their own event each Wednesday night at Hoi Pong’s shop.
“It’s just the lifestyle down here,” Hoi Pong said. “The car scene is big.” And small.
As gas-friendlier car models have hit the roads in recent years, their budget-minded buyers are putting money aside to give these cubicle-sized vehicles more aesthetic oomph, said Dan Edmunds, an auto engineer with the car industry website Edmunds.com.
Sometimes modifications can cost almost a third or even half of what owners paid for the car. Hoi Pong has spent about $4,000 in altering his 2013 Smart car, which cost $14,000.
Just adding different tires and rims doesn’t cost that much and can make a big difference, Edmunds said. “They will be entertaining even if they are pretty economical cars.”
Yes, adding bigger or high-performance tires may negate the cars’ gas savings, he said, but motorists also need to take their driving habits into consideration.
“Attitude is everything when it comes to (miles per gallon). You need to drive like the throttle and brake pedals are made from eggshells to do well,” he said.
Some dealership and auto shop employees say they’ve been seeing more drivers customizing their pint-sized rides.
“People want something to call their own. They want to personalize them to match their style,” said Stephanie Rivero, events coordinator at Rick Case Fiat in Davie. The dealership has a customized version of its Lilliputian Italian vehicle parked outside, showing drivers its modifications potential.
Besides modifying the car for fun, Hoi Pong also sees it as good business.
“Everywhere I go, people are always asking me questions about it and how much I like it,” said Hoi Pong, adding that he’s landed eight clients after they saw him driving his car around town. “If anything, people are always beeping the horn.”
Although he does have bigger muscle cars souped up, such as a Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Charger, he mostly drives the white Smart car to deliver parts and drop off estimates to his customers.
“People don’t expect a big guy like me coming out of a Smart car,” added Hoi Pong, who stands 6 feet tall.
And drivers don’t usually expect to customize hybrid cars at first.
Kai Tang, 29, was driven to buy a 2012 Lexus CT200h hybrid hatchback purely to save gas.
But then he realized he could trick it out with some modifications. He lowered the suspension by 3 inches, added lighter rims and refurbished the car’s interior from tan and black fabrics to red.
“I have done everything that I can do to it,” said Tang, a cabinet manufacturer in West Palm Beach, Fla., who has spent $10,000 on the modifications. “It’s saving me gas, but it’s more appealing. It looks a lot better.”
R.J. Enriquez of West Palm Beach, Fla., also modified his white 2013 Prius plug-in vehicle by painting the roof black so that it matches the side mirrors and adding an antenna that resembles a shark fin. He also installed 18-inch wheels, up from the car’s standard 15-inch wheels, and dropped the suspension by 2 inches. His Prius rolls like a low rider.
“It kind of ruins the gas mileage a little bit, but for the look of it, it’s worth it,” said the 35-year-old nurse, who commutes daily to Miami.
When he pulls up in his Prius in his travels, he often hears jokes and comments like: Why would you do that?
His response? “It looks the best on the car. Why do people buy Nikes? My thing is cars.”