Will you be a Smart shopper? - East Valley Tribune: Business

Will you be a Smart shopper?

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Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2007 12:00 am | Updated: 7:59 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It’s as bold as it is small and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to buy or to run. It’s the Smart Fortwo, a micromachine built “fortwo” people that’s due to reach America in early 2008.

It’s as bold as it is small and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to buy or to run.

It’s the Smart Fortwo, a micromachine built “fortwo” people that’s due to reach America in early 2008.

The Fortwo is a radical departure in automotive thinking and is made in France by a division of Mercedes-Benz, but it won’t be sold by any of the company’s dealerships. Michigan-based United-Auto Group, headed by race-team owner and mega-mogul Roger Penske, is busy establishing dealerships throughout the United States to sell and service this imported Tater Tot.

The Fortwo is the new-and-improved version of a vehicle originally conceived in the early 1990s by Nicolas Hayek, creator of the Swatch wrist watch. His plan for an “ultra-urban” car led to a joint venture with Mercedes-Benz, which ultimately acquired the company. Although 770,000 Smarts cars have been sold in 36 countries since production began in 1998, the German automaker has yet to realize much of a profit marketing these unconventional conveyances.

After a few delays, M-B is hoping that the United States will be fertile ground for Smart and that Roger Penske’s savvy business acumen will make the Fortwo a runaway hit.

The plastic-bodied commuter makes plenty of sense for city dwellers, or anyone for that matter, who drives in short bursts around their neighborhoods. At a little less than nine feet in length — nearly seven feet shorter than a Toyota Camry — the car takes up very little road or parking-lot space and can zip through — or around — traffic like no one’s business. For an automobile of such compact dimensions, there’s ample room behind the seats for everything from groceries to golf clubs, accessible by lifting the rear hatch and lowering the tailgate.

Despite its diminutive size, the cabin is as spacious as that of most sub-compacts. Tall riders won’t have their knees around their shoulders and they won’t have to keep their elbows at their sides. As well, the high-tech cockpit is as inviting as it is functional.

Some who view the tiny Fortwo up close are sure to wonder about crash safety, since many people have the idea that safety and size somehow relate. Suffice to say, Smart has gone to great lengths in this department. The passenger area of the Fortwo is enveloped in a reinforced steel structure that’s designed to absorb the energy from a collision. Front- and sideimpact airbags provide passenger protection and anti-lock brakes plus traction and stability control, which keeps the car heading where the driver intends, are also standard. Smart even claims that the short distance between the front and rear wheels means the tire and wheel assembly function as a protective barrier.

The 70-horsepower 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine is positioned sideways behind the seats, just below the storage area. In Europe and elsewhere there’s an 84-horsepower turbocharged option as well as a fuel-sipping 45-horse turbo-diesel. In Canada, where the previous version of the Fortwo has been on sale for several years, the diesel has been the only choice.

A five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control feeds 68 lb.-ft. of torque to the rear wheels.

Although the Fortwo weighs just 1,700 pounds, zero-to-60-m.p.h. times are in the 16-second range, which is on the longish side. Top speed is 90 m.p.h.

At about $12,000 (plus destination charges), the base-level “Pure” model is golf-cart basic. Stepping up to the $14,000 “Passion” adds climate control, power windows, heated power side mirrors, a panorama roof, alloy wheels, steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles and an audio system with CD player. At close to $17,000, the top-line “Passion Cabrio” includes a power-operated soft top (that can be raised or lowered on the fly) and a premium sound system with multi-disc CD changer.

Clearly, the Fortwo isn’t for everyone, but if a small car with limited seating capacity and lots of attention-grabbing “wow” factor holds any appeal, you might become a Smart shopper.

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