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smart for automotion 12/28

Smart ForTwo offers big style in a small package

By Jim Gorzelany

CTW Features

While so-called "microcars" have long been popular in Europe and Asia, where the streets are narrow and gas prices make ours seem cheap by comparison, it's been decades since one has been sold domestically. But spurred by rising fuel costs and heightened ecological concerns, Mercedes-Benz recently partnered with the Penske Automotive Group to sell the diminutive two-seat egg-shaped Smart ForTwo through a primarily-urban network of dealers in the U.S., beginning in January.

Wrapping ultra-urban stylishness in an economical package, the car is truly funky looking inside and out and is guaranteed to turn heads wherever it's driven. It's been available elsewhere in the world since 1998, with the latest generation debuting for 2008. "This car not only hits an obvious market need for fuel-efficient vehicles, but it breaks new ground as a mass-produced commuter vehicle, and it does so with a lot of style," says David Wurster, president of the automotive market research firm Vincentric.

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The front-wheel-drive Smart ForTwo coupe is offered in a basic "Pure" version that starts at $11,590, and a better-equipped "Passion" model that goes for $13,590. Both feature an expansive transparent plastic roof panel that gives an open-air effect, with a rollout fabric shade on hand to block the glare, as necessary. It's also available in a Cabriolet convertible version for $16,590, with a power-operated fabric top that can either open fully, or partially like a sunroof.

At a mere 106.1 inches long, two ForTwos can easily fit in an average parking space, which makes it well suited for those living in congested metropolitan areas. With a rear-mounted 1-liter, three-cylinder Mitsubishi-supplied engine delivering only 70 horsepower, the Smart ForTwo isn't necessarily as happy on long highway commutes, where motorists may miss the quick on-ramp launches and passing abilities of more-powerful vehicles. It takes well over 12 seconds for the car to reach 60 mph from a standing start.

The only available transmission is a five-speed sequential-shift gearbox that can either be operated manually or in full automatic mode. It's essentially an automatic-shifting clutchless manual transmission. This is the configuration of choice among European sporty cars, and the ForTwo is the least-expensive car sold to include one.

Stellar fuel economy is among the car's main selling points - it's rated at 33 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. Unfortunately, it requires premium fuel.

Riding on 15-inch wheels (power steering is optional across the line), the Smart ForTwo provides reasonably nimble handling, with a tight turning radius. The wheels are pushed so far out toward the corners of the vehicle that there is only an inch or two of bumper ahead of the tires at either end.

Inside, the Smart ForTwo is more spacious than its exterior dimensions would suggest, with plenty of room for two six-footers; cargo room behind the seats, however, remains minimal at 7.8 cubic feet. The base coupe comes only with crank-operated windows and no radio or air conditioning; the high-line versions offer added amenities, with optional items like heated seats and fog lamps.

Smart officials readily admit that potential buyers may question the inherent safety of the tiny Smart ForTwo. After all, the laws of physics dictate that a larger and heavier vehicle will usually fare better in a crash than will a smaller and lighter one, and the only cars smaller and lighter than this one are sold at Toys 'R' Us. Still, the Smart ForTwo is built around a durable "Tridon" safety cage and fares well in European crash tests. Front and side-impact air bags are standard, as are antilock brakes, traction control and Mercedes' ESP stability control.

Will the Smart ForTwo catch on in the U.S. beyond a limited audience of urban hipsters and the ecologically conscious? Francois Gravigny, an automotive adviser for R.L. Polk & Co., remains "skeptical" about the brand's stateside viability. "In Europe it took several years for buyers to get used to the look of it, and I don't think it will do at all well here except perhaps in areas like Los Angeles or New York City," he says. "It's small and distinctive-looking but doesn't have the fun-to-drive factor of the Mini Cooper."

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Still, Penske Automotive Group's sales targets for Smart are modest - the company's chairman Roger Penske says the operation will become profitable in its first year after only 25,000 units are sold. "We are encouraged by the overwhelming, positive response to Smart," Penske says, noting that more than 30,000 prospective buyers in the U.S. placed a $99 deposit on a Smart ForTwo via the Internet in recent months. "We are excited to bring the Smart vehicle to the United States," he said, "and we look forward to seeing thousands of these unique, urban-friendly vehicles crisscrossing the country."

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