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Big in Europe but too tiny to play in the U.S.?

Fun and fuel-efficient, the Smart grows on you. But Mercedes will wait for its mini-SUV cousin to test the market here.

July 14, 2004|Warren Brown | The Washington Post

The tank is half full.

That means it's half empty.

But what's important is that while the tank holds only 6 gallons of diesel fuel, this car gets 60.3 miles per gallon in the city and 75.9 miles per gallon on the highway.

It is a tiny car -- smaller than a Honda Civic, smaller than the Mini Cooper. I could park it in the bed of a Chevrolet Avalanche SUV-pickup.

People smile at it. Others laugh at it. Everyone wants to know if it's safe.

It is safe, within reason -- as safe as walking across the street, riding a bicycle or motorcycle or taking a vow of matrimony. Everything is relative. All I know is that I've been driving this little Bosch-diesel Smart "city-coupe" car for a week, and I still have half of a 6-gallon tank of diesel fuel left.

What's more amazing is that Europeans have been driving these Smart cars since 1998, saving money and saving fuel, and not one Smart has made it to the United States as a retail item.

The one I'm driving -- a 2003 model outfitted with a teeny 0.8-liter, three-cylinder Bosch common-rail, direct-injection diesel engine -- was shipped to these shores to help me feel what it's like to drive the thing on big American roads and highways crowded with big cars and trucks from America, Asia and Europe.

I've been having fun in the Smart city-coupe, which has been renamed the Smart "fortwo" for the 2004 model year and beyond. It's a great neighborhood cruiser and a terrific suburban-city commuter.

The Smart city-coupe has near-motorcycle maneuverability in city traffic. Parking is a no-brainer. It isn't afraid of big cars and trucks.

That isn't bravado. I took the Smart city-coupe on a long drive on Interstate 66, from Washington down into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. I had no trouble keeping up with the traffic flow and staying out of the way of the big rigs. For one thing, the Smart can reach a top speed of 84 mph. It goes from 0 to 60 mph in, well, 20 seconds -- not quite NASCAR or Formula 1 racing form, but hey.

Smart, a Mercedes-Benz stand-alone brand, is marketed in 31 countries.

This fall, the Smart fortwo will go on sale in Canada as a 2005 model. But the United States won't get that car anytime soon, largely because executives at Smart and Mercedes-Benz believe that the super-sized American psyche can't accept something as small as a city-coupe.

They may have a point.

During my time in the city-coupe, I've heard lots of people say that the car is "cute" and that it's a "neat idea" -- things such as that. But nearly everyone who had something to say about the car said they would not drive it because "it's too small."

Certainly, the 2003 edition of the city-coupe in my hands has its peculiarities: the way it moves back about 2 feet before engaging in first gear in manual mode, its three-step "start" system and the absence of a rear end.

Those items have been and are being addressed in the 2004 and 2005 Smart fortwo cars. But Mercedes-Benz, at the moment, still does not want to take any chances in the U.S. market.

Instead, Smart is coming to the United States in 2006 with, you guessed it, a small sport utility vehicle, something Americans can appreciate. It will be a high-mileage, compact, on-road-only SUV called the Smart "formore."

Thus, Smart's U.S. market strategy comes to this: Introduce something Americans can accept and identify with.

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