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.
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.
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.
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.