Will Smart's weird cars make it here?
If you've been to Europe in the past few years, you may have seen people driving around in small cars that look like giant insect heads.
You weren't hallucinating -- and you may be seeing these 'Smart ForTwos,' or cars like them, on roads in this country in the next few years.
The Smart ForTwo is built in "smartville" in the town of Hambach, France. Smart, a subdivision of DaimlerChrysler, sells the ForTwo in Europe, where gasoline commonly costs about $5 a gallon and city streets are old and narrow. In that environment, driving a car that gets about 60 miles a gallon may be, well, smart.
DaimlerChrysler's decision, at least for now, not to sell the ForTwo in the United States is probably smart, too. This is not a car many Americans would go for.
Instead, the folks at Smart are working on some cars that maintain the sporty looks but with attributes American drivers want.
Manhattan meets ForTwo
I recently spent a day driving a ForTwo around New York City. The experience revealed plenty of interest in the car.
At stoplights, people rolled down their windows and shouted questions. On Manhattan's 8th avenue, a bicycle messenger yelled out, "What the hell is that?" In a supermarket parking lot in Queens, a small crowd gathered to ask questions.
One couple even followed me home to find out how they could buy one.
The first question everyone asked -- actually the second one -- was "Is it electric?" or "Is it a hybrid?"
Given the car's cutting edge looks, it was an easy assumption to make. (The car's design has remained largely unchanged since it first rolled into production in 1998.)
No, I informed them. It's just a diesel.
Inside the car, that fact was unmistakable. The tiny three-cylinder engine, situated just behind and below the seats, raised a racket reminiscent of a groovy 1960s VW Beetle. In 21st century terms, however, the noise is not so groovy.
To keep up with traffic, I had to wring out every bit of the engine's maximum 41 horsepower. According to the spec sheet, the Smart ForMore cdi I drove could go zero-to-60 in 19.8 seconds.
The gasoline engined version, with its 0.7 liter rear-mounted in-line 3 pumping out 60 horsepower, would presumably blow the diesel's doors off in the quarter-mile.
Well, it would win, anyway.
Aside from its slowness and interior noise level, the ForTwo would face a far more basic hurdle in the U.S. market. The average American consumer just won't buy a 2-seater that isn't a sports car. Take away the back seats and that thing better go zero-to-60 in six seconds or less.
Since the car is designed to fit two-abreast in a parking space designed for one, there isn't a whole lot of room for luggage, either.
For the United States market, Smart has something entirely new in mind: an SUV version of another one of its cars, the ForFour.
Starting in 2006 the Smart ForMore will be built in a factory in Juiz de Fora, Brazil. The company plans to sell 30,000 ForMores in the United States, and an equal number elsewhere around the world.
Aiming to compete against the Toyota Rav4 and Honda CR-V, the vehicle will be equipped with a 1.8 liter 4-cylinder engine or an optional 3-liter V-6.
If your heart is set on owning one of the original ForTwos, a California firm wants to give you the chance. But DaimlerChrysler doesn't endorse the effort.
Zap, a Santa Rosa-base company that sells a variety of electric cars, is working to import ForTwos and hopes to sell as many as 15,000 a year. The company already has contracted with an importer, said Alex Campbell, a Zap spokesman.
Once here, an automotive conversion company will beef up the car's bumpers, add more side impact protection and make a few other changes to meet U.S. safety regulations, Campbell said. Right now, Zap is waiting for approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Zap will concentrate on "luxury" versions of the cars with cabriolet tops and leather interiors. Prices will range from the teens to as much as $23,000.
DaimlerChrysler is not involved with Zap's effort and warns that it will not provide dealer support here for the cars. Zap says its dealers will be trained to service the cars.
The cars is importing will be a shade quicker than the model I tested, said Campbell. At any rate, customers looking at a Smart ForTwo are probably interested in something besides speed, he said.
"Zero to 60 doesn't matter as long as you can get where you're going and get there safely with minimal impact on the environment," he said.
He'd better keep those prices down, though. At $23,000, upper-end models would have to compete against the Toyota Prius, a muscle car by comparison, with room for four adults and luggage.