May 19

This Day in History

Automotive

May 19, 2007:

Smart launches U.S. road show to introduce its microcar

Los Angeles, California, is the first stop on a cross-country road show launched on this day in 2007 by Smart USA to promote the attractions of its "ForTwo" microcar, which it had scheduled for release in the United States in 2008.

In the early 1990s, Nicholas Hayek of Swatch, the company famous for its wide range of colorful and trendy plastic watches, went to German automaker Mercedes-Benz with his idea for an "ultra-urban" car. The result of their joint venture was the diminutive Smart (an acronym for Swatch Mercedes ART) ForTwo, which debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997 and went on sale in nine European countries over the next year. Measuring just over eight feet from bumper to bumper, the original ForTwo was marketed as a safe, fuel-efficient car that could be maneuvered easily through narrow, crowded city streets. Despite its popularity among urban Europeans, Smart posted significant losses, and Swatch soon pulled out of the joint venture.

Undaunted, Mercedes maker DaimlerChrysler (now Daimler AG) launched the Smart ForTwo in Canada in 2004 as an initial foray into the North American market. In June 2006, DaimlerChrysler chairman Dieter Zetsche announced that the Smart would make its U.S. debut in early 2008. Between 2003 and 2006, as reported by the German newspaper Handelsblatt, DaimlerChrysler took a loss of some 3.9 billion euros (around $5.2 billion) on the Smart brand, and the company looked to the U.S. market as a way to bring the brand into profitability.

The cross-country road show that began in May 2007 allowed consumers in 50 cities nationwide to test-drive the ForTwo. On each stop on the tour, a large truck served as a mobile exhibit dedicated to the microcar, complete with interactive displays and virtual demonstrations. As Dave Schembri, president of Smart USA, put it: "The Smart ForTwo is all about urban independence and freeing people from the constraints of city driving." Under normal driving conditions, the ForTwo was designed to achieve 40 plus miles per gallon. The show was presumably a success: By September 2007, according to an article in MarketWatch, Smart USA said it had already received more than 30,000 registrations from potential buyers. The FortTwo went on sale in the United States in January 2008, at prices ranging from around $12,000 to around $21,000.

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