Smart Car Poised For USA Release
By James Grahame
[Update: The Smart will be available throughout the USA in early 2008, starting at a mere $11,590. Roger Penske's United Auto Group will incubate 30 to 50 dealerships in metro areas. Be sure to read our followup commentary "Why the Smart car's arrival in the USA is a good thing."]
The time has come for DaimlerChrysler to release their tiny Smart Car in the United States. The diminutive 2-seater is prominently featured in several heart-pounding chase sequences in the Da Vinci Code, which hits theaters nationwide on May 19th. It would be foolish for DaimlerChrysler not to take full advantage of such a high-profile placement, so expect a breathless product announcement sometime this month. [update: the announcement came in late June].
Incidentally, the Smart is by no means the first economical 2-seater to make its way to these shores: Vehicles like the BMW Isetta offered 60 mpg in the late 1950s.
The Smart is only 2.5 meters long and features an exceptionally fuel-efficient 1 L rear-mounted gasoline engine and an easy-to-learn 5-speed automated manual transmission (which basically means that it has no clutch - you push the gearshift to change gears. I found the process surprisingly intuitive, and it'll shift automatically if you forget). Surprisingly, the interior is quite spacious and crash tests indicate that the vehicle's Tridion Safety Cell offers respectable passenger protection in severe accidents. The Smart's replaceable body panels are made of scratch-resistant polycarbonate plastic, and the vehicle is available with an optional full-length glass roof or convertible top. Prices start at $11,590 (not including freight, PDI and paper pushing fees) -- half the price of a more complicated hybrid.
DaimlerChrysler had been quietly searching for a company willing to buy the struggling Smart brand. However, it appears that rising oil prices and a refocused product strategy have changed their minds. The company discontinued its less popular Roadster and Coupe lineup and plans to phase out the more traditional Mitsubishi-based forfour 4-seater by 2010. This seems to be an acknowledgment that their popular fortwo is the heart and soul of the Smart division. $1.2 billion will be invested in the brand, kicking off with the release of an updated model in 2008. The most noticeable changes are a slightly more traditional dashboard and a more powerful 3-cylinder gasoline engine that replaces the 799cc diesel powerplant in the USA (it's a pity that Smart didn't stick with the more fuel efficient diesel for the US release. I suspect they had difficulties meeting California's stringent emissions standards).
The radically-styled Smart is manufactured in Hambach, France, and has been on the market in Europe since 1998. The vehicle has been available in Canada for about a year - a perfect harsh climate test. In Canada, the brand is sold through Mercedes dealerships -- a strategy that also makes sense in the United States, since the company doesn't have to focus on a building a new distribution and service network.