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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.

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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.

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At upwards of $20,000 for the Smart model popular here, the price pains Europeans who want cheap plus small. At a time when Indian automakers are designing a $2,500 car, and Chinese half-price Smart knockoffs are showing up in Italy, some Europeans hoped Smart would be more in reach of the ordinary pocketbook. The new small Euro Fiat city model, for example, is about $12,000.

US Smarts will go from $11,590 for the basic "fortwo," to $16,590 for a deluxe fortwo convertible.

Inside the Smart cockpit, there's an uncanny sense of spaciousness with full bucket seats and business class legroom – like Snoopy's doghouse, which supposedly contains pool tables and large sofas. As Mr. Petay points out, the design specs for the front are the same as any medium-sized European car, while the size savings are taken from the rear of the car. Some Smart dealerships even used former semi-pro basketball players to sell the vehicle.

Americans first widely encountered the Smart through the 2006 Hollywood blockbuster, 'The Da Vinci Code,' in which a female French detective adroitly spins the little Smart through Paris streets to elude the bad guys.

Selling a small car to America

Daimler first planned to decode the American market by proposing a four-seat mini SUV. But tests showed Americans liked the original two-seater better. The American Smart is slightly longer, and has a slightly larger 3-cylinder engine than the classic Smart seen in Europe. The new Smart jumped from 61 to 71 horsepower, and 84 horse is also available.

The Americanized Smart is what European dealers will be selling as the 2008 model.

How Smarts will fare in the US is still uncertain. Daimler executives think it will be a big city hit. On Dec. 17 Daimler reported the 30,000 Americans who paid $99 to get on the Smart list exceeded expectations, and that US fortwo demand is outstripping supply. The unusual $99 car deposit is like a refundable waiting list reservation. The company will contact those on the list to see if they are still game, and put the money toward the car, if they are.

"I think America is a country too big for a car as small as Smart," says Frederic Bidault, a political consultant in Paris. "I can't picture it in L.A. Maybe New York City."

An auto writer in Business Week last year argued, perhaps wryly, that the Smart may be too smart for Americans in love with "preposterous" vehicles like the Hummer H2. "Vehicles like the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon are necessary for people who pull boats and horse trailers, just as many buy them because they have irrational and selfish insecurities about riding around in anything smaller than a tank."

Some American expats in Paris suggest the Smart car will please women. Smart officials say buyers in Europe is evenly divided between men and women.

Smart vs. SUV

Smart car* Lincoln Navigator**

Length: 106 inches 223 inches

Weight: 1650 lbs. 6245 lbs.

Wheelbase: 74 inches 131 inches

Engine type: 3 cylinder 8 cylinder

Horsepower: 71 300

City mileage: 33 m.p.g. <12 m.p.g.

Fuel tank: 9 gal. 28 gal.

Source: smartforum.com, lincoln.com; research by John Aubrey. *Passion model; **4x4 L Series

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