Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Smart Fortwo Mini-Cars, The Shape of Things to Come?

When the Mercedes Smart ForTwo micro car starts arriving in America in January 2008, a new sub-subcompact segment will be created. This is a niche market specialty vehicle for urban situations where parking is tight and expensive. Folks who want to make a green statement will find the 8-foot, 8-inch Smart ForTwo gets more attention than the increasingly common hybrids. This car is over three feet shorter than Mini-Cooper: those who call it a "golf cart" aren't off by much.

Smart Fortwo Mini-Cars, The Shape of Things to Come?Want to turn heads? Just back your Smart car straight to the curb like a motorcycle instead of parallel parking. Two can fit into an ordinary parking space. With a surprisingly roomy interior (for 2), Smart cars are expected to appeal to urbanites in San Francisco, Manhattan, and other congested cities along both coasts. The majority of smaller cars sold in the U. S. have been cheap, most are built in Korea.

Smart Fortwo Mini-Cars, The Shape of Things to Come?Mini Cooper and Toyota Scion have shown there is a growing market for quality small cars. And ForTwo is diminutive. Weighing 1,800 pounds and powered by a 70 hp three-cylinder rear mounted engine, the Smarts reach a top speed of 90 m.p.h. after considerable coaxing. 2008 EPA fuel economy ratings are 33 city/40 highway. Performance is unimpressive: 0-60 mph in 12.8 seconds.

Smart Fortwo Mini-Cars, The Shape of Things to Come?
Smart Fortwo Mini-Cars, The Shape of Things to Come?Penske Automotive Group, the second-largest dealer chain, has contracted to distribute the Smart and enlisted 73 dealers nationwide. Europeans have been driving Smarts for over ten years, during which time around 800,000 have been sold in 36 nations. The version set up for export to America will be made in France. Mr. Penske intends to sell a minimum of 30,000 ForTwos in 2008.

Although this seems ambitious with well established Mini doing only about 38K, thirty thousand potential buyers have already put down a refundable $99 deposit. Mercedes has designed this roller skate to overcome safety hurdles faced by every mini-car. Crash tests, with video available on the web, show the 4-2 is safer than other tiny cars, especially those made in China.

In extensive crash tests the steel safety cage surrounding the passenger compartment has resisted deforming. The inexpensive car has standard safety features ordinarily found in luxury vehicles; four air bags, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and collapsing steering column. The U.S. government will test the Smart car after it arrives on the market. Builders predict it will receive four out of five stars in American crash tests.

European models recently received four out of five stars in Euro New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) tests.

The Smart is delivered in three affordable trim levels: base-level Pure, which at $11,590 lacks air conditioning and radio; Passion $13,590; and Passion Cabriolet convertible $16,590. And hey, it's hip. Smart already has the environmental brand image competitors try to buy with advertising. Tired of the color? Just unscrew the plastic body panels and replace with what ever hue is in. Will the market sustain Smart, which has never been profitable, after the new wears off? Yes, it's hip, it's fuel-efficient, and cost effective. But the "Smart" may not be the automotive shape of the future. Designers made compromises in order to meet safety standards: occupants ride high, at eye level with other traffic. The vertical posture distributes crash energy beneath the car. This creates a boxy large frontal area that hurts fuel efficiency.

Smart's very high drag coefficient of 0.38 causes fuel economy to fall in proportion to speed more quickly than other designs. While the ForTwo could be a start towards a spatially efficient America, the gas mileage is not significantly above Honda and Toyota 4-seat cars. With the 505 horsepower asphalt-ripping 2008 Chevy Corvette rated at 29 m.p.g. highway, 40 m.p.g. for a micro-car hardly qualifies as progress. In 1966 I bought a 1958 Morris Minor 1000 to drive to high school. It was initially designed in 1948. The Morris was hip, cheap, and fuel efficient.

That 60 year old design also went 40 miles on a gallon of gas.

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