Tiny Smart Car a Big Hit in the U.S.

Sales exceeded the original target of 16,000 units by more than 8,000 vehicles.

Despite the American love-affair with big cars, the U.S. has emerged as the third largest single market for Daimler AG's tiny Smart car, the chief of Smart USA said. "Even though we didn't really get started until February (of 2008) we were third in the world behind Germany and Italy," said Roger Penske, the head of the Penske Group, the Detroit-based chain of dealerships which has partnered with Daimler to distribute Smart.

Demand for the French-made two-seater came in significantly higher than expected, Penske said, with sales exceeding the original target of 16,000 units by more than 8,000 vehicles.

And while other dealer showrooms have turned into ghost towns as overall U.S. sales crashed last fall, the Smart currently has a six-month waiting list, he added. In addition, 55% of the customers who put down $99 to reserve a smart car via the Internet ultimately took delivery, Penske said.

Penske, however, said Smart USA is being cautious about the outlook for 2009. "We're being very, very conservative," he said at the Detroit auto show. "We would be happy to stay even and just do what we did in 2008," added David Schembri, president of Smart USA.

2008 U.S. sales were down 18% in the steepest decline in 29 years and to the lowest level since 1992. This year is expected to be even worse, with U.S. auto sales forecast to fall by as much as three million vehicles to anywhere from 10.5 to 12 million vehicles.

Sales have not been below 12 million since the recession of 1982 when the United States had 74 million fewer people than today.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009

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