Simply Smart

The fuel-efficient Smart Car -- all the rage in Europe -- has a growing fan base in Maryland, but can the tiny vehicle really catch on in the States?

May 02, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

From a squat warehouse below an overpass in Hampden, the team at J.K. Technologies is working hard to bring to America an antidote to soaring gasoline prices.

It's 5 feet high, 8 feet long and gets more than 60 miles to the gallon on the highway. A fill-up costs about $11. About 200 people across the country have put their names on a waiting list for the chance to pay $20,000 to get one.

The Smart Car, a creation of Mercedes-Benz and Swatch, is all the rage in Europe, inspiring cult-like loyalty. The two-seater, first sold in 1998, can be spotted nimbly zipping along roadways in 30 countries. It is coming to Canada. But it is not sold anywhere in the United States.

That could change as early as this summer, when J.K. Technologies LLC, an independent auto importer, expects its first batch of the two-seater Smart Cars to roll off a ship in the port of Baltimore and - after a spin through J.K.'s shop - into buyers' eager hands.

"They're incredibly special machines," said Lois Joyeusaz, J.K.'s chief executive. "They're larger than you think on the inside. They're extremely safe. They get 63 miles to the gallon, highways; 52, city. They can fit two to a parking space. They're fun. They're very peppy. They're the perfect city car."

Company President and project engineer Jonathan Weisheit, a former Formula V race car driver who reverently refers to design engineers at Mercedes as "geniuses," sums up the role of Smart: "It's right for the world today."

Joyeusaz and Weisheit, along with a team of J.K. researchers, have spent nearly four years tweaking the Smart Car to meet U.S. safety and environmental standards, even conducting crash tests. The company expects to get final approval within a month to import the Smart Fortwo, the original two-seater, including both the Passion hardtop and the Pulse convertible.

J.K. thinks that it can sell about 1,000 cars a year to start, and plans to offer them from a showroom in an as-yet undetermined spot in Baltimore.

"SUVs are fantastic traveling vehicles, but when we're talking about going to and from work and sitting in traffic," said Weisheit, "why do you need 10 to 15 miles per gallon to get to work?"

Steve Roseman, a 46-year-old electric bicycle distributor who drives an electric car up and down his hilly San Francisco neighborhood, agrees. He's placed a preliminary order for a blue, hard-top Smart.

"I feel like we're adopting a child," said Roseman. "Smart is the coolest car that's ever been created.

"If I were towing a boat or had to haul around lumber, this wouldn't be my choice. But Smart will take care of 98 percent of my needs, and the other 2 percent of the time I'll ask a neighbor to borrow the truck."

Lisa Simeone, a Charles Village resident who is a freelance radio host of NPR's World of Opera and of foreign affairs cable television show Superpower, first saw the Smart car several years ago while vacationing with her husband at a French chateau.

They drove the chateau owner's Smart Car at his insistence and fell in love. She has since sent letters to DaimlerChrysler and surfed the Web in vain in hopes of landing a Smart. When she heard about J.K., right in her own back yard, she jumped at the chance to get on the list. She's No. 53.

"I wish I were No. 1," said Simeone. "It's a beautiful, little, sensible, practical, safe vehicle - because it's a Mercedes crash cage. And I am not a person who gets excited about cars. I'm a person for whom a car has four wheels and it goes."

Most of J.K.'s Smart clients heard about the importer by word of mouth or through the Internet. Like Roseman and Simeone, they're not satisfied to wait for DaimlerChrysler AG, through its Mercedes Car Group, to start exporting the cars.

The automaker doesn't plan to introduce the brand in the United States until 2006, and then it will first launch a Smart-inspired, small SUV, the Formore.

Sometime after that, Mercedes expects to offer a second-generation version of the Smart Fortwo designed to meet U.S. standards. The company expects to sell about 30,000 Formores per year, and a limited volume of the Fortwos.

"It is a niche product, but we feel very confident there is interest, even fanaticism in this vehicle," said Scott Keogh, general manager of Smart USA.

"You will see the Fortwo and the roadster. They will be developed with America in mind. The Fortwo has such an iconic status, so the vehicle will maintain the basic shape and basic concept."

DaimlerChrysler's strategy of easing into the U.S. market with a small SUV signals its caution. But David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit group in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the success of BMW's Mini Cooper indicates that buyers exist.

"We've been surprised with the popularity of the Mini, a very small BMW," Cole said. "There were reservations about whether it would mesh with a U.S. market that has a predisposition for larger vehicles. ... We tend to have larger families, longer trips and carry more stuff."

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