June 28, 2006

Is the Smart car smart? Americans are unconvinced

By Abha Bhattarai

NEW YORK (Reuters) - DaimlerChrysler AG may face an uphill
struggle when it launches its two-seater Smart car in the
United States in 2008.

In a quick survey of Americans in New York's Times Square
on Wednesday, as many people saw the tiny vehicle as ugly as
found it cool and cute. And there were also concerns about
safety and the lack of space -- for baggage or people.

While Smart cars have been tooling around European cities
for years, the American car market -- still dominated by SUVs
and pickup trucks -- is an entirely different matter.

Even in an era of $3 a gallon gasoline and increased
concern about the environment, many were still wary.

"It's really ugly," said Liz Viccora, 20, of Long Island,
New York. "I like environmentally friendly cars, but this looks
like a go-cart or one of those things security guards drive at
the mall."

DaimlerChrysler on Wednesday announced plans to launch
Smart in the United States at an expected price of not much
less than $15,000. That is enough to buy any one of dozens of
four- and five-seat vehicles, so it may take some financial
incentives to warm Americans to the Smart car.

Barely 8 feet long, it is about half as long as a Toyota
Camry. Even the Mini Cooper, a minor hit among U.S.
trendsetters in recent years, is 50 percent longer.

While DaimlerChrysler says the new version of the Smart car
to be sold in the U.S. market would have more storage space,
size remains the key problem for many.

"I have too many kids for something that size," said John
Pabft, a 52-year-old with three daughters. "We wouldn't be able
to fit anything."

But the car's polarizing design attracts some supporters.

"They're futuristic, and that's what's cool," said Junior
McNeill, 37, who first saw the cars in this summer's hit film
"The Da Vinci Code." "They look like modern-day buggies."

Isaac Logan, 19, said: "It's small and it's cute. It would
definitely get attention on the street."

Some saw a Smart as an alternative for quick errands.

"It would be a second car I would use mainly for grocery
shopping and short trips around town," said Zubin Furtado, 30,
of Jersey City, New Jersey.


And while some drivers say a Smart would be easier to
maneuver in cities where traffic is heavy and street parking
scarce, parking would not necessarily cost any less.

"There's no incentive for those cars. Everyone pays the
same rate," said Craig Chin, a spokesman for New York City's
Department of Transportation.

There's one other big issue.

Even if the Smart wins a federal government seal of
approval for safety, some Americans fear it would be no match
for a Hummer or an 18-wheeled semi in a crash.

"You'd have to keep your will in the glove compartment,"
said Keith Wagner, 37, of New York City. "If you got hit by an
SUV or a truck, it looks like you'd be dead."