Daimler Anticipates Warm U.S. Reception

At less than 9-feet-long with room for just two people, it's a head-turner. The Smart Fortwo car, a small relative of the Mercedes, has three cylinders, just 71 horsepower, and gets 40 miles per gallon. If you want, rather than parallel parking you can park perpendicular because it fits in half a parking spot.

In Europe, the company has sold 800,000 and they've been buzzing around streets for eight years. And starting this month, the approximately $12,000 car will start showing up here.

Dieter Zetsche runs one of the biggest automakers in the world, Daimler AG, which makes high-end luxury Mercedes-Benz cars. But now Zetsche is bringing a new car to the United States.

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"Everybody who sees the car starts to smile. And just likes what he or she sees," Zetsche said.

Right Time, Right Place

"First of all, you will be supporting the environment. Second, you save fuel. Third, you help to reduce congestion in inner cities," said Zetsche. "But it's just fun to drive it. You can do everything that you can do with a grown-up car."

No one said Zetsche doesn't have a sense of humor.

"When you pour some water on it, it might grow. Of course, it's a perfect car, which is safe, which gets you everywhere you want," he said.

But America has been an SUV culture for years. Riding in a tiny vehicle like the Smart Fortwo might seem scary when traveling next to a huge car or truck.

"First of all, America was always about extremes. So of course, the largest cars in the world are here in America. But people react perfectly well to this very small car," Zetsche said.

Safety Concerns

An engineer by training, Zetsche described a 50-mph test of a Smart car against a big Mercedes.

The company claims it basically built a reinforced capsule, a Nascar-type cockpit, to protect passengers.

And they're hopeful for a four out of five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"The formula's too simple to say the bigger the safer. It's at the end about technology and obviously Daimler AG and Mercedes have a tremendous track record as far as technology is concerned particularly in the area of safety," Zetsche said.

As for the public, 30,000 Americans don't seem worried. They've put down $99 to reserve a Smart, and Mercedes can't even make that many for America this year.

Upcoming Models

Zetsche said this is just the beginning. Diesel Smart already gets 70 miles per gallon. They are also testing battery versions and thinking about hydrogen fuel cells. Zetsche said he's committed to minimizing carbon dioxide emissions.

Like other automakers, Daimler AG has been fighting the most aggressive efforts to raise fuel standards for cars.

"I do believe that ultimately the customer will drive that development to its limits based on fast-rising fuel prices," said Zetsche.

This may not be the car for a cross-country trip, but it's a day-to-day commuting car Mercedes expects Americans will want.

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