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Mini to the max: Will the Smart car grow on U.S. drivers?

  • Story Highlights
  • The Smart car goes on sale in the United States in January
  • The ultra-compact two-seater is designed to get at least 40 miles per gallon
  • Car is expected to be big among first-time buyers, city dwellers, baby boomers
  • Size prompts questions about safety, but company touts steel-cage technology
  • Next Article in Technology »
By A. Pawlowski
CNN
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(CNN) -- There's a petite new contender ready to tackle America's problems of foreign oil dependency and urban congestion.

smart-car.jpg

A Smart car negotiates traffic in Rome, Italy. The tiny vehicles go on sale in the U.S. in January.

Meet the Smart car: An ultra-compact, Mercedes-designed, head-turning little vehicle that's been negotiating traffic and squeezing into impossibly tiny spaces in Europe for almost a decade.

Now, it's about to go on sale in the United States.

One reason the company waited so long to introduce it to Americans was that the U.S. wasn't ready for such a small car, said Jessica Gamarra, marketing specialist for Smart USA.

But choking traffic and rising gas prices have changed that, she said.

"I think we've finally gotten into a mindset where we are starting to look at conserving rather than consuming, and I think that especially makes this car the right car at the right time," Gamarra said.

The Smart is expected to get at least 40 miles per gallon.

But fuel-economy may be an afterthought for some buyers. Many are simply expected to purchase the car for the "wow factor" once it hits dealerships in January.

"You get something that looks totally different than anything else on the road," said Csaba Csere, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine. "So if you kind of want to be looked at and want to be the first on your block with the new hardware, the Smart does that."

But Csere advised prospective Smart car buyers to take a realistic look at their driving habits.

"I would make sure that a car this small will meet your needs," Csere said. "If your driving is mostly on city streets or maybe city freeways, the car is going to be fine. But this is not a car that you want to do long distances in on the highway."

The automotive Web site Edmunds.com had a similar verdict.

It praised the Smart for its styling, economy, "zippy" handling and ability to park almost anywhere.

SMART STATS

• 770,000 Smart cars have been sold in 36 countries

• The Smart car began in the early 1990s as a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and Swatch

• Swatch inventor Nicolas Hayek wanted to design an "ultra-urban" car

• Smart stands for Swatch Mercedes Art

• Swatch is no longer involved in the project

• The Smart "fortwo" debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997

• Production began in Hambach, France, in 1998

• The Smart car has been one of six cars exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Source: Smart USA

But it raised concerns about the Smart's "anxiety-causing" size and -- with prices starting at about $11,600 -- it found the vehicle expensive compared with bigger cars in its class.

"As a second, commuting-only car, it's wonderful, but those with room for only one vehicle in the garage may want to consider a larger subcompact or compact car," the Edmunds.com review said.

'Neat gadget'

Many Americans got their first look at the Smart car during the "street smart" road show, which brought the tiny vehicles to more than 50 cities across the country during the summer and fall.

In all, about 70,000 people showed up to check out the Smart and more than 40,000 took a test drive, Gamarra said. Some stood in line for hours. The tour was part of what the company calls "discovery marketing."

"We really like to give people the chance to see, touch, feel and drive the car versus just showing them a television ad," she said. "Because it's so new ... it's something that you really need to wrap your head around by experiencing it." Video Watch a Smart car test drive in the Big Apple »

The road show's recent stop in New York generated many comments. One fan called it a "cool, little, neat gadget;" another declared: "I just want to buy one immediately."

But other people were nervous about the size of the car.

"They're a little too small for this country, and I think people will think they're kind of flimsy," one man remarked.

"I don't know if I'd want to be on the [highway] doing 60 miles an hour and have a car run into me," another said.

It's a common concern as people consider the car's petite dimensions and wonder about its safety.

Questions about size

At just under 9 feet long, the Smart car is about 3 feet shorter than the Mini Cooper and 7 feet shorter than the Ford Explorer. At 1,800 pounds, it's about 4,500 pounds lighter than an empty Hummer H2. See how the Smart compares with other cars on size, horsepower and fuel economy »

Smart USA insists concerns about safety are easily overcome once people learn more about the vehicle.

"It's basically built to be like a race car, with the steel cage technology that protects the occupants," Gamarra said. In addition, the Smart comes equipped with safety features including anti-lock brakes and front and side airbags.

The car is designed to achieve a four-star rating out of a possible five stars in government crash tests, according to Smart USA.

It has done "very well" in standard tests that would be done in the U.S. and that the company has replicated in Europe, Gamarra said.

But official results won't be out for a while.

The Smart car has not yet been crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which waits until vehicles go on sale to the public before evaluating them, NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana said.

Experts caution that people for whom safety is a priority should avoid the smallest cars.

"You can't repeal the laws of physics," said Russ Rader, media relations director for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts its own car crash tests. "Size and weight are very important aspects of safety."

"You can do things to a small vehicle to make it safer, but it will never be as safe as a bigger heavier vehicle," he said.

The IIHS -- a nonprofit group funded by auto insurers -- has also not yet crash tested a Smart car, but Rader expressed concern about the number of small cars hitting U.S. roads.

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"There are potential public health consequences in a switch to small, lightweight vehicles and consumers need to know that there is a trade-off for getting better fuel economy," Rader said.

"The death rate for drivers in the smallest cars is twice as high as it is for people in large cars," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About National Highway Traffic Safety AdministrationInsurance Institute for Highway Safety

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