Small car with big following

Posted: August 30, 2007

Park a VW Beetle next to a Smart car, and it's not the VW you'll want to call a bug.

Alongside a Smart, a Mini Cooper looks like a maxi.

Don't like to parallel park? Pull your Smart straight up to the curb. The Smart isn't much longer than some SUVs are wide.

If that last point is a wee bit exaggerated, maybe a little hype is understandable. After all, this is a car some Americans have been awaiting for years, after seeing them navigate the narrow byways of France, parked nose-in against a Roman curb, or serving as Tom Hanks' unlikely getaway car in The Da Vinci Code.

Yesterday, a steady stream of Smart enthusiasts lined up in Devon to check out the tiny cars, which were in town as part of a nationwide Smart road show that is heralding the vehicle's planned U.S. debut this January.

By the end of the day, 240 had test-driven a Smart fortwo - that's its official, informative name. Similar crowds were expected today in Devon, and tomorrow and Sunday near the University of Pennsylvania. (For information, visit www.smartusa.com.)

Not all needed to be sold on the car, especially those invited because they'd already paid $99 to get on a Smart waiting list. Since March, more than 20,000 have paid the refundable fee. Base prices for the three models of the Smart fortwo will range from about $12,000 to $17,000.

"We signed up the first day, because we knew we wanted one," said Jim Richmann, an Intel engineer who traveled 130 miles from Lewes, Del., so that his wife, Frances, could test-drive the car they plan to buy.

They'd seen Smart cars all over Italy last October, when they visited there for a month. Both were impressed by how maneuverable and efficient the small car seemed, especially "in a crowded Roman street." She's already picked a color: "sun yellow."

The Smart will replace her aging Dodge Neon. A retired college administrator, Frances Richmann said she just needs a car to get around the streets of Lewes, "a small town with limited parking."

It wasn't just the car's efficiency that drew them. Jim Richmann said "the coolness factor" also appealed. "I think she just wanted something a little more fun," he said.

Smart's manufacturer, DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes Car Group, is clearly banking on such buzz to sell the U.S. market on a brand introduced in 1998 and sold in 36 other countries, including in Canada and Britain.

Why did Daimler wait so long to enter the U.S. market?

One impediment was that previous versions of the Smart did not meet U.S. safety and pollution standards, said Ken Kettenbeil, a spokesman for Smart USA, the Penske Automotive Group subsidiary established to market the Smart.

Kettenbeil said Mercedes recently discontinued several versions of the car, including some four-seaters, so that it could focus on the two-seaters, including a convertible, aimed at the American market.

"Mercedes did a lot to make sure the car meets all us crash and emission standards," he said.

But engineering demands weren't the only reason for the delay. Others were cheap gasoline, and Americans' love of large vehicles. "Nine years ago, SUVs were the reigning kings of American roadways," Kettenbeil said.

Now Smart's backers believe the time is right for a brand that may change the way American drivers define small.

"We're seeing more and more Americans gravitate to smaller, more ecological vehicles," Kettenbeil said. "We think the American consumer is ready for a car like this."

Kettenbeil said Smart USA's unorthodox marketing effort began in June 2006, when DaimlerChrysler chose United Auto - renamed Penske on Aug. 9 - as its U.S. distributor. Its first step was to set up a Web site, and invite visitors to subscribe to a monthly e-newsletter. More than 80,000 have signed up.

"The two questions we got the most were, 'Can I fit in it?' - people would actually give us their weight and height - and about safety," Kettenbeil said. "So we thought, 'Let the consumer sit in it.'"

Thus was born the road show, beefed up with crash-test video and other materials showing the car's crashworthiness.

In Devon yesterday, sitting in a Smart was one of the first things Jim Nettleton did.

"I already know I fit," said Nettleton, a nearly 6-foot Valley Forge physician who calls himself "a substantial person."

Nettleton, who commutes to Center City, said the Smart would replace his VW Beetle, which he loves for its size, maneuverability and economy. On all counts, he said, the Smart would be a step forward. Though its official ratings aren't complete, the Smart's three-cylinder engine is expected to get more than 40 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.

And even if it doesn't quite fit sideways alongside an SUV, the Smart is remarkably small. From its snub nose to its flat tail, the Smart extends less than nine feet. It's more than three feet shorter than a Mini, more than four feet shorter than the New Beetle, and less than half the length of a Chevy Suburban.

The name itself may not hurt, especially among Smart's target market of the "creative class," which it defines as "early adopters . . . who purchase products that make a statement about our society and the environment."

"You've got to admit, naming it Smart was a smart idea. It kind of makes you feel good," Nettleton said.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles at jgelles@phillynews.com or 215-854-2776.

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