Thanks to mushrooming gasoline prices, sales of fuel-efficient small cars are booming. And that opens the door for the Smart car.
Mercedes-Benz announced recently that its nine-foot-long, European-built Smart car would go on sale in the United States beginning in early 2008.
The Smart will be sold here separate from Mercedes' luxury-car dealership network. The Smart sales network will be put together by US mega-dealer Roger Penske, chief executive of the United Auto Group Inc, which has 173 newcar dealerships in 20 states.
Penske will recruit dealers for the Smart both within and outside his own dealer network, Mercedes said. The dealerships will be announced about mid-2007, and the Smart will go on sale in the first quarter of 2008, Penske said.
To start, US consumers will get three versions of the Smart ForTwo, a two-seater. It will be the next generation of the ForTwo model that has been on sale in Europe and other markets since 1998, and in Canada since 2004. Mercedes sold more than 4,000 Smarts in Canada last year.
“Following the success of the Smart ForTwo in our first North American market, Canada, and the increasing demand for affordable and fuel efficient small cars in the USA, we are now bringing this new kind of mobility to US cities," Mercedes Chairman Dieter Zetsche said during a recent announcement of the company's US plans for the Smart.
The current ForTwo has fuel-economy ratings of up to 46 miles per gallon in the city and 69 mpg on the highway. Combined city/highway average is said to be about 58 mpg.
That would put it in about the same class as the two-seat Honda Insight gasoline-electric hybrid. But the ForTwo is not a hybrid. It comes with a 51- or 61-horsepower, 698-cc, three-cylinder gasoline engine that gives it a top speed of 84 mph. Mercedes says it can go from zero to 60 mph in 16 seconds.
A diesel engine is offered in Europe, but will not be available here.
The US-bound Smart will have "all the important features that make customers feel safer and more comfortable," Mercedes said in a news release accompanying the announcement.
"As part of the Mercedes Car Group, the Smart vehicle will be equipped with unique technology, including the 'hard shell' tridion safety cell," electronic stability control and several air bag systems, Mercedes said.
The cars that will be sold through the Penske dealership setup will be authorized by Mercedes and covered by the factory warranty.
No U.S. prices have been announced yet, but the ForTwo ranges from just over $15,000 to about $20,400 in Canada (in US dollars).
Whether Americans will embrace the ForTwo and the other new, small cars in large numbers and over a sustained period remains to be seen, however.