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ALEX COHEN, host:

Now, for a new idea from Europe that may soon be saving fuel in the United States.

Mr. DAN NEIL (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Ok, we'll put a little brake in, get a little nose down, and then will take this really tight corner here. (Unintelligible) as a Lamborghini, so...

COHEN: And how does this compare to a Lamborghini?

Mr. NEIL: The ashtray is faster.

COHEN: That's Los Angeles Times car columnist, Dan Neil, putting the very, very small, smart car through its paces. The smart car is a joint project from Mercedes-Benz and the watchmaker, Swatch. The car is coming soon to the U.S.

Dan Neil stopped by the studios here at NPR West recently to show off the smart car. And at first glimpse, it didn't look like it was all there.

Mr. NEIL: It looks like someone stolen the back half of the car, doesn't it?

COHEN: It's - I hate to say that's so cliche, but it's cute.

Mr. NEIL: Oh, it is. You could just pinch it. It is so cute.

COHEN: Of course, our listeners can't see this, though. Can you describe just how small is the smart car?

Mr. NEIL: Well, most people would be familiar with the BMW Mini, which was the smallest car in the market for years, in about four years now in the market. This car is three and a half feet shorter than that car. It's tall like a regular car, only much, much shorter. And so you see this - it looks like someone's stolen the back half of the car.

COHEN: Dan, it's really cute, but I have to say, I would be a little bit worried if I were sitting behind the wheel there, that, if a big old Hummer came and hit me, that would be the end of me. What's the safety like on the smart car?

Mr. NEIL: Well, you know, I never really thought about it when I was overseas because when I drove this car, I was in a sea of other similarly sized cars. But now that I've had the car in Los Angeles, I must say, you know, when a big pickup truck comes up behind you, it crosses your mind.

For the record, the company says these cars are incredibly safe and durable. It's built - the skeleton of it is what's called a tridion safety cell, and that's this black part, this sort of black yoke that you see around the car. It's constructed in such a way that it will absorb all kinds of high-energy impact and distribute those forces around the cabin. Still, you know, you are pretty much hanging out in the elements in this car. It's somewhere between a car and a motorcycle.

COHEN: What's the mileage on the smart car?

Mr. NEIL: Well, with the motor that is in this car, which for the U.S. market, the 70 horsepower three-cylinder one liter motor. It's about 50 miles per gallon, mixed city and highway. And so really, when gasoline is over $4 a gallon in California and approaching that mark in other parts of the country, this is a car that - its time has come.

COHEN: Speaking of gas, it's a beautiful, sunny day here in Los Angeles, but as we look out over the Pacific Ocean, there is this dark sludge of smog that hangs in the air, which begs the question, why can't they do this car as an electric car, a hybrid car? Because it's all gas, right?

Mr. NEIL: Mm-hmm. One thing about electric cars is in order to have range, they have to be big enough for a battery to be on board, and batteries are still a fairly bulky and heavy proposition. And so you run into a situation of diminishing returns when you start to put batteries on very, very small vehicles.

COHEN: Dan, let's take a peek on the inside.

Mr. NEIL: Okay, Alex.

COHEN: A surprising amount of legroom for such a tiny car.

Mr. NEIL: I know. Well, this part of the cabin, I mean, it is spacious. And, you know, the ergonomics are very familiar. This looks like the front of a small compact car, You know, living is good up here. What is different, of course, is when you look over your shoulder, and you notice that someone's made off with the back half of your car.

But it has everything you need to be a happy commuter. It has a good radio. It has air-conditioning. It has a clock to remind you that you're running late. And it has a fairly comfortable seat.

COHEN: Dan, how can you or when can you actually get one of these smart cars?

Mr. NEIL: Right. They'll be on the market in the first quarter of next year. They plan to sell about 20,000 of them per year. So they're coming soon.

COHEN: Dan, one last question.

Mr. NEIL: Uh-huh.

COHEN: On a cute, little car like this, I just got to know how the horn sounds. May I?.

Mr. NEIL: Oh, please.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

COHEN: Adorable.

Mr. NEIL: That is charming, isn't it?

COHEN: Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times, thanks so much.

Mr. NEIL: Thank you, Alex.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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