Daimler's Smart Fortwo sells out before U.S. debut

Tiny two-seater is big on buzz

November 24, 2007|By Rick Popely | Rick Popely,Chicago Tribune

What's fashionable, as cool as an iPhone but just a tad bigger?

In this case, an impossibly tiny vehicle called the Smart Fortwo that isn't even for sale in the United States until January, but its manufacturer says its limited production is sold out through much of 2008.

A bubble-shaped two-seater, at 106 inches the Smart is more than three feet shorter than a Mini Cooper, and less than half the length of a Chevrolet Suburban.

The Fortwo, following in the tracks of automotive icons such as the Toyota Prius and Mazda Miata, has developed the kind of buzz marketers dream about, managing to squeeze into its pint-sized cockpit several sales-friendly attributes: It sips gas, it's inexpensive and it has loads of personality.

"People today are much more focused on their self image, how they feel and look to their peers," said Wes Brown, a principal in Iceology, a Los Angles research firm that studies consumer behavior. "That's what's driving the marketplace, and that adds to the opportunity for a brand like Smart. It's definitely a fashion statement."

Size is the Fortwo's biggest draw and drawback. SUVs tower over it and can weigh three to four times as much. As the smallest and one of the lightest cars on the road, the 1,650-pound Fortwo might look comfortable on a cobblestone street in Europe, but could scare off American buyers worried about a collision with a big SUV or pickup.

The Smart meets U.S. safety standards, which means it is equipped to withstand crash tests in full-frontal and front-offset collisions at 35 mph and side collisions at 38 mph. Safety also was a concern with the Mini Cooper, but the Mini has compiled a better safety record than some larger vehicles, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Smart USA President Dave Schembri said the Fortwo's safety record in Europe shows that risk to occupants is no greater than with other small cars, and Europe's crash-test program gave the Fortwo four out of five stars for adult passenger safety. One of the most important features is its "safety cell," a steel housing designed to displace the force of a crash over a large area of the car.

To address consumer unease in the U.S., each dealership will display the steel safety cell, which looks like a racing car's roll cage. But the car is clearly aimed at an urban audience and not as a highway cruiser. In Europe, where the roads are tight and the Smart is popular, the car's signature trick is its ability to park just about anywhere, including nose to the curb.

Smart expects the car, which is made in France by the Mercedes Car Group division of Daimler AG, will have an EPA rating of 36 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.

Smart has been available in Canada for three years, and Andy Stark, 51, of the Toronto area was an early adopter. After Stark and his wife test-drove a previous generation Fortwo, they pulled out a credit card at the dealership and said, "We want one."

They later bought a second Fortwo and park them end-to-end in a single-car garage.

Stark was a Mercedes-Benz salesman at the time but now sells the Fortwo in Oakville, Ontario, an upscale Toronto suburb. He notes that buyers don't fit a set demographic.

"There certainly are a lot of people who could buy anything they want, but we see everyone from a university student to someone who has two Jaguars in their garage. What they all want is an eco-friendly vehicle," Stark said. "They're friendly, personable people who enjoy life and want to make an environmental statement."

When Smart dealerships open in the U.S. in January, Schembri expects to have 40 to 50 operating in major cities, all with waiting lists for the car.

More than 30,000 prospective buyers have made $99 deposits on the Fortwo on Smart's Web site since June 2006.

Other firms imported a small number of Fortwos and converted them to meet U.S. safety and emissions regulations, but the cars that arrive in January will be the first factory-authorized units.

Schembri wouldn't give a sales projection for 2008, though analysts have pegged the number at about 20,000. Someone who places a deposit now probably would not receive a car until "the very later part of 2008," he said.

Three models will be available, and are priced from $11,590 to $16,590.

Rick Popely writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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