The Smart car is a familiar sight in Europe as it squeezes through traffic to find parking spaces too small for anyone else. But how will the tiny car fare on the streets of the US where size really matters?
By André Vornic
BBC News, New York
Big, as far as most US car-makers is concerned, is definitely beautiful. Anyone trying to convince drivers to take to a Smart car in the States may well have their work cut out.
Which may be the reason why, even though the car is being promoted aggressively in the US - DaimlerChrysler sponsoring marathons in New York and Boston - the company has decided not to sell the car in the world's biggest car market until 2006.
With its compact looks and low petrol consumption, the Smart car has been embraced by many European motorists since its launch in 1998. And there is no doubt its blobby swagger would fit the glamour of Mercedez-Benz's flagship Manhattan showroom, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
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But will US drivers take it seriously?
"There is an increasing emphasis on design in America," says Scott Keogh, general manager of Smart USA. "It's even spread to things that were considered plain objects before, from watches to knives and forks. We want to inject emotion and brand values into the entry-level vehicle, which is traditionally seen here as just a commodity."
"Definitely a metrosexual car," chuckles Dan Neil, a critic with the Los Angeles Times. Mr Neil's feel for motoring trends and witty columns have made him the first automotive journalist to receive a Pulitzer prize, earlier this year.
"The success of BMW's Mini has lowered the threshold of what's seen as an acceptable size. There is a trend towards cute, adorable miniaturisation."
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The Smart car, Mr Neil suggests, may be inadequate on Michigan's battered roads or in rough, highway-choked LA. But in the "smoother urban environments" of Boston, Chicago, or Miami Beach, it could clearly catch on.
Cultural obstacles remain, however. Even as a car for the urban sophisticate, the Smart would be sharing street space with the macho 4x4 sports utility vehicle (SUV), which occupies a large share of the US car market.
The Smart car's style credentials would make it an ideal product to target at women drivers. But in the US, surveys suggest women also tend to choose large SUVs because they make them feel safe.
"Anything that size in this country is basically SUV road kill," sneers recent New Yorker Michelle Baran. Originally from southern California, Michelle has lived - and driven - in both Europe and the US. "Small equals murder here, and the Smart is a case of style over practicality."
But Jenny Silver, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, is an early convert: she and her husband are "dead against SUVs".
"I think it's ridiculous to have an SUV in New York. In the backwoods of Maine or other rural areas, maybe, but not here."
Jenny is making plans for the day the couple's current car, which has seen better days, finally expires. "We're now looking at the hybrid vehicles that Toyota and Honda make," she adds, "and we'd definitely be up for a Smart."
Mindful of an enduring SUV bias, DaimlerChrysler has re-interpreted the acronym to fit a new product: it will be entering the US market with what it calls a Smart Utility Vehicle.
Named Fourmore, and seating four people, the model is halfway between a European city car and an American SUV. Slick as the former and powerful as the latter?
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It will be very small by SUV standards, insists Scott Keogh of Smart USA, and much lighter. "But," he adds, "with all the innovation and versatility you'd expect. The Fourmore is meant for those who want to stand out and be distinct."
Smart estimates that around 30,000 Americans will want to stand out and be distinct in the first year. Set against the 17 million or so cars sold annually in the US, that number may appear small.
But it's far from negligible for a newly-launched niche vehicle. Mr Keogh hopes it will give Smart the leverage to begin marketing its miniature models, including the two-seater city-coupe, which measures just 2.5 metres.
Aside from looks and size, European customers are drawn to the Smart car for its reduced environmental impact. Not only is the car almost entirely recylable, but it meets the EU's most stringent gas emissions standards, known as Euro 4. Its fuel consumption is also low, even by economy-car criteria. Yet that argument traditionally carries less weight in the US, where access to cheap and plentiful petrol is seen as a civic entitlement.
Now, however, with prices at the pump spiralling, Dan Neil of the LA Times forecasts a "sea-change" in attitudes. He believes over-reliance on imports is starting to bring home to drivers the true cost of oil. "The US consumer," says Mr Neil, "needs a hard shock to be nudged in the right direction."