Daimler to Market Smart Car in U.S. in January

Daimler will begin selling the Smart car in the U.S. next month. i i

hide captionDaimler will begin selling the Smart car in the U.S. next month.

Photos provided by Daimler
Daimler will begin selling the Smart car in the U.S. next month.

Daimler will begin selling the Smart car in the U.S. next month.

Photos provided by Daimler
Daimler says 30,000 people have put down deposits to buy a Smart car.

hide captionDaimler says 30,000 people have put down deposits to buy a Smart car. The tiny vehicles are already on the roads in Europe.

Photos provided by Daimler

The Smart car is coming to America.

Next month, dealers in the U.S. will begin selling the tiny vehicle best known for slipping into tight parking spaces on the streets of Rome and Paris. The car's maker, Daimler, said high gas prices, crowded cities and concerns about global warming mean the time is right to crack the world's biggest auto market.

Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler, said the country that gave the world the Hummer today cares more about the environment and practicality.

"Times have changed, there's no doubt," Zetsche said at a Washington, D.C. news conference this week. "Many Americans have been to Europe and have seen that European cities without 'Smart' are almost unthinkable."

But some who follow the car business think the Smart car will be little more than a novelty.

"Aside from its quirkiness, why would somebody buy one of these things?" asked Aaron Bragman, an auto specialist with Global Insight, the financial analysis firm.

Affordable Price

Here are some of the key specs on the Smart car. It costs between $11,590 and $16,590. It measures less than 9 feet long and — in the city — gets 42 miles to the gallon.

Zetsche said it is the ultimate in urban efficiency. But Bragman said it gives up too much in space without providing enough savings on gas.

"For the amount of money you're charging for one of these things, you can purchase any number of other vehicles that get similar fuel economy, similar emissions," Bragman said. Plus, there is room for three more passengers.

One thing most people agree on is that the Smart car is cute. It looks like a cross between a dune buggy and a golf cart. Its front grill is shaped like a smile, giving the car a cartoonish quality.

The biggest selling point is the one that has made it so popular on the narrow streets of European capitals — it's easy to park.

However, some drivers find the three cylinder engine feels sluggish at times. And — although the interior is bigger than it looks — a tall driver might find there isn't enough head room.

Many drivers will also wonder about safety. The car has four air bags and has done reasonably well in European crash tests. But at 1,600 pounds, the Smart will be the lightest car on American roadways, where there are far more sport utility vehicles.

Stiff Competition

Daimler says the Smart car is unique and has no real competition, but, in reality, it faces a crowded field of subcompacts. They include the Toyota Yaris, a five-passenger car with a starting price of around $11,000.

Even if the Smart car makes a splash in the subcompact market, there are limits.

Subcompacts account for just 2 percent of U.S. auto sales, compared with 15 percent for midsized sedans.

"Gas would have to (be) upwards of five, six dollars a gallon before you (would) really see huge migration away from these larger vehicles," Bragman said.

Still, Daimler predicts the car will be a hit. The company said more than 30,000 people have already put down a small deposit to buy one.

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