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How Smart is smart?

The automotive equivalent of an e.e. cummings poem (that is, everything is written in lower case) will officially launch in the U.S. market in January 2008.

The automotive equivalent of an e.e. cummings poem (that is, everything is written in lower case) will officially launch in the U.S. market in January 2008. Interest in the little two seater is high—more than 20,000 people have paid $99 to reserve a production model (pure, passion coupe, passion cabrio), trim level, and color preference—and gas prices hovering at or above $3 per gallon not only suggest this is the right car at the right time, but that Daimler AG might finally make a profit on its diminutive city car. Dave Schembri, president of smart USA (www.smartusa.com), says the car “appeals to Generation E, the most overlooked generation. That is, everyone.” Penske’s UnitedAuto Group (Bloomfield Hills, MI; www.unitedautogroup.com) will handle sales and service for the cars, and is constructing a stand-alone dealership in Bloomfield Hills that also will contain smart’s U.S. headquarters.

Though smart USA expects the car to be a sales success based on initial reaction, its long-term growth is by no means certain. It is powered by a 1.0-liter 3-cylinder gasoline engine mated to an automated five-speed manual gearbox, capable of a top speed of 90 mph, and expected to return more than 40 mpg combined in EPA testing. This places it ahead of small cars with greater flexibility like the Mini Cooper (29 mpg combined) and Honda Fit (30 mpg combined) as measured under the EPA’s stricter 2008 rules. Unlike the 106.1-in. long fortwo, however, these cars offer greater carrying capacity in terms of both luggage and cargo, making them more than second—or third—vehicles for most buyers. In addition, cars like the recently introduced Fiat 500—and its stablemate, the 2010 Ford Ka—are expected to make an appearance in the U.S. in the coming years. Though Schembri is confident the fortwo’s combination of frugality, style, fun, safety, and Mercedes engineering will keep buyers interested in the vehicle, it may take more to keep buyers interested once the new wears off.—CAS