Smart Fortwo: A pint-size newcomer

Posted: May 06, 2007

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Carlos Ramirez has owned some classic cars, such as a '57 Thunderbird and a '34 Ford Coupe with a rumble seat, but his current obsession might be his favorite.

"I wouldn't accept a Ferrari if somebody said, 'Let's trade,' " Ramirez said.

His pride and joy, imported from Europe to Mexico and now at his home in Campbell, Calif., is a Smart Fortwo. The tiny two-seater will go on sale in the United States early in 2008.

Early word-of-mouth praise comes from international travelers who have seen or driven the miniature cars - two fit in an average parking space. They have been on sale in Europe since 1998, in Mexico since 2003, and in Canada since 2004. Smarts are now sold in 36 countries, and the company says it has sold 750,000 of them in the last decade.

Officials with Smart, a division of Mercedes-Benz, which is part of DaimlerChrysler AG, have hesitated to bring the car here - until now.

"It's the right car in the right place at the right time," Dave Schembri, president of Smart USA, said in a recent telephone interview. (The company puts its brand name, smart, and its models, such as the fortwo, in lowercase, to emphasize its difference.)

Here is Schembri's reasoning:

Smart's superior fuel economy - projected at more than 40 m.p.g. - makes it a natural during these times of high gas prices.

Smart's small size makes it a good fit in crowded urban environments.

Smart's low price - from $12,000 to $17,000 - makes it trendy at a time when a revival of small cars such as Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Fit, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Versa and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Yaris is attracting U.S. buyers.

"Lastly, there's the emotional aspect of this car," Schembri said. "This car strikes an emotional chord by sheer design." In recent years, such diverse models as BMW's Mini Cooper, Volkswagen's New Beetle, Chrysler's PT Cruiser and the entire lineup of General Motors Corp.'s Hummer brand have attracted buyers thanks to designs laden with personality.

After fits and starts - the company had a huge presence at the Detroit auto show in January 2004 showing off a Brazil-built utility called the Formore, only to change those plans later - Smart announced in 2006 that it would come to the United States in 2008.

Since then, its www.smartusa.com Web site has attracted more than 800,000 unique visitors. Nearly 50,000 of those signed up to receive information on a regular basis, earning "Insider" status with the company.

For two weeks in late March and early April, these Insiders could put down a $99 deposit to get one of the first available Smart cars. Schembri would not say how many reservations the company had taken, but said "the response has been amazing."

Smart will arrive in the United States a bit differently than two other new cars also affiliated with larger, more established brands - Toyota's Scion and BMW's Mini.

Smart needed a different distribution model, Schembri said, so the company picked Roger Penske's UnitedAuto Group to be the distributor.

The company will announce its dealers, perhaps 50 to 75 of them nationwide, in June. Many, but not all, Smart dealers also will be Mercedes-Benz dealers, Schembri said. "Probably over half," he said.

So, how small is the Smart? It's 8.8 feet long, 5.1 feet tall, 5.1 feet wide and weighs between 1,653 and 1,808 pounds, depending on the model.

Schembri, a former executive with Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi, joined Smart USA last year. Here is how he describes his pint-size project:

"The car is about the size of the sofa in your living room. It's about as wide as your wide-screen TV. It's a little shorter than the average height of a woman," he said.

Although it sells other variants elsewhere in the world, Smart will come to the United States with just one model, the two-seat Fortwo. It will be sold as a base two-door called the Fortwo Pure for about $12,000; as a better-equipped coupe, the Fortwo Passion, for about $14,000; and as a two-door convertible, the Fortwo Passion Cabrio, for about $17,000.

All models will have a 71-horsepower, 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine mated with a five-speed automated manual transmission. The Fortwo has a top speed of 90 m.p.h., Smart says.

Many consumers will question the safety of such a small car. Schembri points out that the car's entire chassis serves as a safety cage, something Smart calls the Tridion safety cell with high-strength steel. Publicity materials say it "protects its occupants like the hard shell around a nut." The Fortwo meets U.S. and European crash-test regulations, and comes standard with four air bags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control.

Targeted buyers will be members of "the creative class," Schembri said. They are the first people to try a new restaurant, see a new movie, buy a new gadget.

In all, Smart anticipates drawing four groups of buyers: People looking for cheap cars. People living in big cities. ("The metro cools," Schembri said.) Baby boomers looking for a second or third car for the family fleet. And empty nesters.


Smart Fortwo

Base price: $12,000.

Powertrain: 71-horsepower, 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine with five-speed automated manual transmission.

Gas mileage: 40 m.p.g. (projected).

Length: 8.8 feet.

Width: 5.1 feet.

Height: 5.1 feet.

Weight: Between 1,653 and 1,808 pounds, depending on the model.

Top speed: 90 m.p.h.

Final thought: Aimed at baby boomers and empty nesters, this two-seater is expected to go on sale in 2008.

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