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Want flashy car plus 60 miles per gallon? Get 'smart'

At the Detroit Auto Show in January, American car buyers caught their first glimpse of what happens when a German luxury car company pairs up with a playful Swiss watch maker to design a new brand of car.

It may sound like nothing more than a novelty item, but the manufacturer says it's wildly successful in Europe. And it could start showing up on American roadways soon.

Marking its first formal debut in the United States, a company that calls itself "smart USA" officially unveiled its entire line of European micro-cars at the Motown extravaganza.

A division of Daimler-Chrysler, "smart" is the result of a joint effort between Swatch and Mercedes. (Hence the name: S for Swatch, M for Mercedes and ART for art.) Though the name is technically an acronym, the company uses all lowercase letters because, "We are just different, I guess," says Julia Knittel, spokeswoman for smart USA.

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Weighing in at just over 1,500 pounds, the fortwo -- as in, the car is for two people -- is about 8 feet long and less than 5 feet wide. That means the micro-car is merely a few inches longer than a Hummer is wide.

Originally launched in Europe in 1998, the smart fortwo is a tiny vehicle designed to zip through tight urban streets.

"Five years later, the brand has accomplished a lot. It has become the 'it' vehicle in Paris and London," says Knittel. "It is becoming more than just a functional mode of transportation."

Smart hopes the micro-car will become as much an accessory for the fashionable urbanite as it is a vehicle.

The fortwo resembles a colorful coconut on wheels and comes equipped with "swappable" side panels, meaning you can drive a different color car every day.

Priced below $20,000, smart is targeting buyers who want to have fun with the car they drive, Knittel says.

"We try to not target age groups or particular demographics, so much as we go for 'psychographics,'" she says. "We want to sell to people who want more than just mobility from their vehicle; they want a car that fits into their lifestyle and are open to creative concepts."

Many critics doubt the SUV-crazed American public would be quick to embrace such a tiny vehicle, but given the right marketing, smart may have a shot in the United States, says Dan Kahn, road test editor for Edmunds.com, a national Web-based automotive magazine.

"They should be able to sell decent numbers if they can convince the public this is a real car and not a golf cart," Kahn says. "We will have to wait and see. To date, tiny subcompacts haven't sold very well. Then again, look at the Scion xA. That's pretty small and there seems to be a decent market for that."

Kahn says urban city dwellers and young professionals who want a hip and interesting alternative may be likely to embrace the smart brand.

The fortwo offers more than good looks, Knittel says. It also travels an incredible distance on a single gallon of gas. Being packed in such a tight package, the fortwo gets about 50 miles per gallon of gasoline, she says, and their diesel model goes farther than 60 miles on each gallon.

Since the fortwo's introduction, smart has added the forfour, a four-door micro-sedan, and the smart roadster to its lineup of cars.

Debuting the slate of cars at the Detroit show gave smart a chance to display its wares and to get feedback from the floor, Knittel says.

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-- Posted: Feb. 15, 2005

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