Smart Car Makes Debut in U.S.

The tiny car is designed to deliver 33 miles per gallon in cities and has 'ultra-low emissions.'

Smart, a tiny vehicle produced by Daimler, makes its debut in the U.S. this week in response to new tastes of consumers who are increasingly interested in fuel economy. Launched a year ago, Smart enters a new phase of its marketing campaign with the arrival of first models to U.S. dealerships and delivery to clients of cars manufactured in France.

Since last March, Smart USA received more than 30,000 orders, which were sealed by prospective buyers making a $99 down payment. The company believes 70% of these preliminary orders will result in final sales, said Ken Kettenbeil, Daimler's director of communications. Some 50,000 people were given an opportunity to take the car for a test drive and 30,000 others attended demonstrations of the car. "The car attracts a lot of attention," Kettenbeil continued, pointing out that small vehicles were becoming more popular in the United States. "It is the right car at the right moment."

A distribution network that will be managed by Penske Automotive Group is already in place with 74 dealerships around the country. Many are located in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but Smart will also be sold in the U.S. heartland -- Omaha, Nebraska or Jacksonville, Mississippi. To attract American buyers, Smart emphasizes its "green" qualities. The car is designed to deliver 33 miles per gallon in cities and has "ultra-low emissions." But emphasizing security, engineers have also equipped Smart with a stabilizer and four airbags.

Project Smart represents an important investment for Daimler, which some time ago had envisaged abandoning it for lack of sufficient interest. But Smart was given a new lease on life by a redesign that focused on making the basic model a two-seater, while the four-seater and roadster versions were abandoned. A Smart model with standard equipment will sell in the U.S. $11,590. Also available are the convertible and coupe models. The latter has received 60% to 65% of all orders.

Given the number of orders, deliveries should take several months. That means buyers trying to acquire a Smart today will have to wait until the end 2008 or early 2009 to receive their car. As many as 780,000 Smart cars manufactured at a French factory in Hambach, in Moselle in eastern France, have been sold since 1998. These vehicles have been selling in North America since 2004. They have found 2,000 buyers, for example, in Canada.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

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