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Europe's little 'Smart' car to hit U.S. streets

Hugely popular in many European cities, the teeny tiny two-seater has already been reserved by 30,000 American residents.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2008

Alfredo Sosa



Behold, with a microscope if necessary, the Smart car. The Mercedes-built European two-seater turns on half a dime, loves to park where even MINIs fear to fit, and is counterintuitively comfortable.

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This month, after six years of delays, the panda-cuddly car comes to America.

Europeans already have a love-hate relationship with the feisty little vehicle, designed partly by the Swatch watchmaker Nicolas George Hayek. But Daimler-Chrysler figures this is a perfect moment for the American market. The car combines French savoir-faire with German engineering, is cheap on gas at a time when oil is above $100 a barrel – and will target buyers concerned about emissions and ecology.

Already, 30,000 US residents have plunked $99 down to reserve the first 3-cylinder two-seaters sold in their country.

On the Upper West Side in Manhattan, promoters recently displayed 42 Smarts parked on a block that would fit 21 regular American cars. The US model is 7.5 inches longer than its European cousin, but still four feet shorter than the MINI Cooper, its main competition on the diminutive front. Smarts were also test driven in some Whole Foods store parking lots last year, which might say something about the intended market.

"The Smart is as good for an 18-year-old girl as for her father," says Jean Fourier, a Smart owner in Paris pulling out his iPhone during an interview. "That's one reason I like it. But basically, it is the perfect urban vehicle."

"If you want to be a chic urban Parisian you are driving a Smart, not a big car," says Christophe Petay, a Smart dealer near the Trocadero here. "In Europe, we don't think of it as a car for the countryside. But that's tradition. Americans can drive it coast to coast."

All the rage in Europe

It took some time for the Smart to catch hold in Europe. Now, Paris sports 30,000 Smarts, and Rome 50,000.

On European city streets, the ubiquitous Smarts are like darting schools of tropical fish, or a swarm of flies, depending on the beholder's eye. Some are swathed in brightly painted ads. (Smart will lower the sticker price for buyers willing to drive around as a billboard.)

Those who love the Smart can find no faults. On Smart e-forums, owners debate a Miss Smart contest, take part in a Smart world relay race, revel in what they call "the Smart spirit," and share secrets of successful long trips.

Naysayers find the car "simply ridiculous," as one Parisan says, for reasons of aesthetics and cost. They find it a bourgeoise vanity vehicle driven by smug urbanites, and say it is family-unfriendly and pricey. "It's the car for people who won't take the metro … and who have another one to go on holiday," says Anne-Gael Moulin, a young financial consultant in Paris.