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DaimlerChrysler Smart Car
Okay, this car may be definitively European, but it’s no Lamborghini. There are no wings, scoops, or even much in the way of horsepower to be found here. In fact, if you want to go really fast, you’d best look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a fun ride that’s guaranteed to get attention along with some pretty incredible fuel economy, this Eurocar could be calling to you.
Chances are good you’ve never heard of such bizarre, capital-deprived names as smart, fortwo, or forfour, let alone encountered first-hand the diminutive automotive creations that bear these names. In fact, you’d be excused if you thought the unlikely proportions and color scheme of these cars seemed more appropriate to a petite alien-pod than the land yachts we’re used to driving.
Be prepared, though, because a multi-pronged invasion of these cars into the American homeland is planned that, if successful, could have these vehicles buzzing around your neighborhood soon enough.
The main thrust is coming from a company now known as smart GmbH, first conceived as a joint venture in 1994 between Mercedes-Benz and the makers of the Swatch watch in Switzerland. Nicolas Hayek, president of the watch making firm Ste Suisse Microélectronique et d’Horlogeries SA (SMH), had a strong desire to apply his concept of combining innovative and trendy products with colorful, interchangeable fascia to environment-friendly automobiles for the masses. He shopped his idea for a “Swatchmobile” around for a decade, including companies the likes of Volkswagen, but ultimately ended up with investor Daimler-Benz…and Micro Compact Car was born. The company, later known as MCC smart and now simply smart, began production of its city-coupe two-seater in 1998 and was subsequently purchased entirely by Daimler-Benz AG. Smart has since grown into an international brand, selling some 120,000 vehicles annually in over 30 markets around the world. Seemingly everywhere, of course…but here.
Within the Mercedes Group of DaimlerChrysler, the multi-model automaker offers hardtop and cabriolet versions of its fortwo (the former city-coupe), a two-seat roadster, the four-passenger forfour, and the doorless, roofless, and windshield-free crossblade (capitalize any of the aforementioned models at your peril). To lend a sense of the vehicles we’re dealing with, the smart fortwo is a compact 98.4 inches long, 59.6 inches wide, 61.0 inches tall, and weighs 1609 pounds. In its base form, the 0.7-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder gasoline engine makes 50 horsepower and delivers a whopping 60 mpg. Can you say, “hybrid-fighter?”
So why haven’t these cars been offered in the States before? Certainly, Europe’s historically high gas prices made the prospects for such a thrifty fuel-sipper there attractive in ways that would be unimaginable in America. But then, who would have ever imagined sustained gas prices of $2.00 to $2.50 a gallon here? Still, we can chalk up the disparity mostly to car culture. The smart car was envisioned as a city runabout, perfect for the highly congested metropolises of Europe but less ideally suited for long distance travel on expansive U.S. highways packed with large sedans, pickups, and SUVs.
Things have changed since 1998, prompted by those high gas prices, a distant yearning for energy independence, and a growing interest in efficiency shown by the increasing sales of hybrid electric vehicles and trendy cars like the Mini. In a changing American car market, it appears that size still matters, but increasingly, so does style. Upcoming entry-level models from Audi and Volvo show there’s life in the premium small car segment. Additionally, Toyota’s Scion spin-off brand and its attempt to capture younger car buyers have sparked rumors of a sub-Civic Honda. In fact, smart may have to tread carefully so it doesn’t step on the pint-size toes of potentially competitive cars from its parent company, like a possible Mercedes X-Class crossover-type vehicle. Clearly, automakers are looking to capitalize on what they perceive as budding interest in small cars and, in terms of fuel-efficient options, it seems the more the merrier.
Even though smart’s official U.S. debut is set for 2006, its models may well be a familiar fixture on American streets before then. How? Smart-Automobiles LLC, a private company entirely independent of DaimlerChrysler, has begun importing and modifying coupe and cabrio versions of smart’s fortwo to meet U.S. standards. ZAP, the California-based electric vehicle marketer, has signed a $10 million contract with this company to be the exclusive U.S. distributor and licensed manufacturer of these imported vehicles. Just like that...you’ll be able to buy your own gray-market smart car long before the brand officially launches.
But it may not be that simple. Smart-Automobiles has spent the past two years and $5 million striving to make the vehicles legal for use in the States. Smart-Automobiles contracted G&K Automotive Conversion in Southern California, a company that imports supercars and modifies them to U.S. specifications, to make the necessary changes including a new fuel system and interior airbags, along with performing the requisite crash and emissions testing. So far, the Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have given their approval, but the company has not yet received certification from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Once that EPA Statement of Conformity comes, ZAP is convinced it will sell many thousands of smart cars through its website and the nascent dealer network it’s striving to build. Of course, building a network of dealers to sell and service these vehicles is no small challenge, as anyone who has been through such exercises will readily attest. Prices for the Americanized smart cars may range from $15,000 to as much as $25,000, a significant markup from the equivalent starting price in Germany of about $9,500 for the coupe and $13,000 for the cabrio.
At least one other import firm, J.K. Technologies of Baltimore, Maryland, has entered the equation. Like G&K Automotive Conversion, J.K. Technologies plans to source its vehicles from European smart dealers. However, this company’s less ambitious business model aims at selling 500 to 1,000 smarts through a small number of Mercedes-Benz dealers in and around the Baltimore and Florida areas, handling service on its own.
While still a stranger to the U.S. market, the smart is making official inroads now on the North American continent. By the time you read this, Mercedes-Benz Canada will have begun selling smart fortwo models through its dealer network across that country. Both coupe and cabrio variants will be offered, but exclusively with a 40 hp, turbocharged 0.8-liter common rail diesel engine. Sales projections in Canada for 2005 are a nominal 1,000 units. Looking southward, smart entered the Mexican market in 2003 with seven distribution centers offering fortwo, roadster, and forfour models. Both north and south neighbors represent potential avenues for gray-market imports. While the North American Free Trade Agreement wouldn’t be an impediment, certifying and registering vehicles from Canada and Mexico in the U.S. could throw up some serious roadblocks.
Regardless of the road taken – the long and straightforward one leading to 2006, the early road filled with modified imports, or the one colored with shades of gray – the smart is coming and will surely make its impression on the American driving psyche.
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