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

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

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

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Smart car is coming to America. Next month, dealers here 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, says that with high gas prices and crowded cities and concerns about global warming, the time is right to crack the world's biggest auto market.

But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, some who follow the car business think the Smart car will be little more than a novelty.

FRANK LANGFITT: Dieter Zetsche, the CEO of Daimler, says Americans are more open-minded now. At a news conference in Washington this week, he said the country that gave the world the Hummer cares more today about the environment and practicality.

Mr. DIETER ZETSCHE (CEO, Daimler): Times have changed. There's no doubt many Americans have been to Europe and have seen that European cities without Smart are almost unthinkable. Obviously, in the years as well, people are aware of their limited available fuels.

LANGFITT: The Smart Car's specs go like this: It costs between 11 and $16,000; it measures less than nine feet long; and in a city, it gets 40 miles to the gallon.

Zetsche calls it the ultimate in urban efficiency.

Mr. ZETSCHE: When you just want to get from A to B with a lot of fun, and don't want to carry three persons with you, a Smart gives you everything you can ask for.

Mr. AARON BRAGMAN (Auto Specialist, Global Insight): Aside from its quirkiness, why would somebody buy one of these things?

LANGFITT: Aaron Bragman is among the Smart car skeptics. He's an auto analyst with Global Insight, a financial analysis firm. He likes the Smart car, but he says it gives up too much in space without providing enough savings on gas.

Mr. BRAGMAN: For the amount of money that you're charging for one of these things, you can purchase any number of other vehicles that get similar fuel economy, similar emissions, but have more in the way of convenience, where you're getting - seating for three extra people, plus cargo, plus room for suitcases. You don't have any of that in the Smart.

LANGFITT: One thing most people do agree on: 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. To get a feel for the vehicle, I test drove one in Washington this week.

The car's engine has just three cylinders. It's a little slow on the pick up. When I hit the gas, it actually lurches a little bit before it seems like the engine fully kicks in.

The biggest selling point though is parking. Unable to find a legal spot, I improvised.

I'm in an illegal parking place, actually in front of a meter, between a meter and a driveway right on the curb, and I still have about a flip between the car in front of me, which is one of those giant Chrysler 300 C, and another foot and a half or so from the driveway. So, it's - I mean, it definitely - you can park it in really, really small spaces.

Dave Roia(ph), who works downtown fixing doors, pulls out his cell phone to snap a photo.

Mr. DAVE ROIA: It's a nice car, I think.

LANGFITT: What do you like about it?

Mr. LOYA: Good. It's small. It's in the shape of design.

LANGFITT: This one is also, like, 13,500. What do you think of that price point?

Mr. LOYA: It is worthy, yeah. I was thinking more of like 10 or something like that because it's so small.

LANGFITT: Daimler says the Smart car is unique and has no real competition. But the truth is it faces a crowded field of subcompacts. They include the five-passenger Toyota Yaris, which starts around $11,000. Another challenge? Aaron Bragman, the auto analyst, says subcompacts make up just 2 percent of the U.S. auto market. That's compared to 15 percent from midsized Sedans.

Mr. BRAGMAN: The gas would have to be upwards around 5, $6 a gallon before you really see a huge migration away from these larger vehicles.

LANGFITT: And then, there's always the question of safety. The car has four airbags 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 SUVs.

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

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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