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.
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.
Click image for larger view
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
"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