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Smart Cars Ready To Roll   |  September 2, 2004  

By Paul Williams

Almost 50 years ago, tiny two-seat vehicles from Germany appeared on the roads of North America. They provided compact, fuel-efficient transportation for people making short trips. With names like Messerschmitt, Heinkel and Isetta, these “bubble cars” were the first post-WWII efforts of a reviving European automotive industry, and were a small step toward the technically innovative and diminutive cars that would come to typify many of today’s import vehicles.

But back then North Americans had no use for them. A “right-sized” vehicle of the day was a huge and powerful station wagon designed to pull large trailers on long trips with a big family. Micro-cars, as they came to be called, were viewed as curiosities by some, and as a joke by others. Aside from their occasional participation in parades, they quickly disappeared from the automotive landscape.

But times (and technology) have changed. This fall, history arguably repeats and the tiny, two-seat Smart fortwo micro-car enters the Canadian market via Germany and France. Available in coupé and cabriolet formats, and sold through Mercedes-Benz dealerships, these are inexpensive to buy and cheap to run.

(The U.S. will get the four-seat Smart in 2005, called the forfour.) The difference now is that consumers seem to understand the need for these vehicles.

The current crop of Smart cars are not new, only new to North America. They were originally developed as a joint venture between the Swiss watch company, Swatch, and car-maker Mercedes-Benz. The double-entendre name “smart” is derived from “s” for Swatch, “m” for Mercedes, plus “art.” After Swatch pulled out, Smart became a 100 per cent owned subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler. The company is now a division of the Mercedes Car Group.

Smarts are built at an eco-friendly facility called Smartville, based in the French town of Hambach, and the fortwo is powered with an engine manufactured at DaimlerChrysler’s engine factory in Berlin. Capacity at the plant is 120,000 vehicles per year, and more than a half-million Smarts have been sold in European and Asian markets since their introduction in 1998. Visitors to Europe will see them everywhere; for drivers battling traffic congestion on a daily basis, the Smart literally fits right in.

“We decided to launch the current generation of fortwo Smarts in Canada in response to strong consumer demand,” said Mercedes-Benz Canada president Marcus Breitschwerdt. “Based on the success of the fortwo models around the world, it was the consensus that there is an unequivocal need for this type of intelligent, fuel-efficient mobility in Canada.”

With Canadian prices starting at $16,000 and a cruising range of 300 to 400 kilometres on a $10 fill-up, expect the intriguing Smart to receive an enthusiastic welcome from Canadian consumers.

Available in three ascending levels of trim, called pure, pulse and passion, standard and optional equipment includes air conditioning, compact disc player, power windows, remote keyless entry, rear wiper and sunroof.

Everything inside the car is full-sized but it’s externally that the Smart’s dimensions dramatically diverge from the norm. The vehicle is 2.5m in length, 1.5m wide and 1.5m tall. In comparison, the measurements of the MINI, formerly the smallest vehicle sold in North America, are 3.6m, 1.6m and 1.4m.

The transversely mounted engine in the rear-wheel drive Smart is located behind the seats, over the rear wheels. An inline, three-cylinder, 800cc (0.8 L) common rail turbo diesel, it features electronic exhaust-gas recirculation to reduce emissions, generates 40.2-horsepower at 4,200 r.p.m., and makes 73.8 lb.-ft torque at 1,800-2,800 r.p.m.

Although this may not seem like a lot of power, the Smart fortwo weighs only 730kg, and is about two-thirds the weight of a typical compact car.

Its maximum payload is 260kg, and top speed is electronically limited to 135km/h.

Like the engine, the semi-automatic six-speed gearbox (called Softip) may be new to Canadians. There is no clutch pedal, and upshifts are accomplished manually by pushing the spring-loaded shifter located between the seats. The transmission will downshift automatically, returning to first gear when stationary, or the driver can shift to a lower gear as required. An automatic version called Softouch is optional.

Standard wheel size is 15” (bigger than on some compact cars), and the Smart’s front/rear track is unexpectedly wide, which contributes to its stability when cornering.

Of primary importance to consumers, especially in such a small vehicle, is safety. Even though vehicles have downsized over the years, a collision with a full-sized sports utility vehicle would suggest particular peril for a Smart’s occupants. Perhaps surprisingly, the Smart has excelled in crash tests (both in-house and independent).

Its largely decorative body panels are made of plastic but a high-strength “tridion” steel safety cell protects occupants from vehicle intrusion when hit. Complementing the rigid safety cell, energy-absorbing deformation zones reduce the force applied to occupants in the case of a collision. The engine is designed to slide below occupants in the event of a collision from the rear.

Tests have included a frontal crash at 65km/h against a deformable barrier, rear-end crash at 55km/h, side crash at 50km/h and car-to-car crashes (head-on and offset) between the Smart and an upper standard-sized car (Mercedes-Benz E-Class and S-Class). According to the Mercedes Car Group, in more than 50 crash tests, the Smart provided greater occupant safety than classic small cars.

In addition to its strong safety cell, the Smart comes standard with safety belt pre-tensioners, driver and passenger airbags and a range of sophisticated electronic aids, including anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, traction control, hydraulic brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.

The plastic body panels are exchangeable and recyclable. A Smart owner can decide to change the vehicle’s colour by simply changing these panels.

According to JoAnne Caza, Mercedes-Benz Canada’s marketing director, the Smart has an extremely broad appeal in the 32 markets in which it is sold, without preference based on age, gender or income. She expects the same diversity of interest in Canada.

“People buy this car for its size, mobility, fuel economy, forward thinking, “green” association, social responsibility, ease of parking, design, coolness, fun, personal statement, flexibility, intelligent purchase, affordability. I could go on and on,” Caza said.

The Smart represents a completely new kind of vehicle for the Canadian consumer (or at least, one that hasn’t been seen for a half-century). Perhaps ideal for urban buyers who require a vehicle for short trips, the Smart is something of a “personal transportation device.” If its time has come, expect to see more manufacturers introducing micro-cars to our market.

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