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You have to give credit to smart, the European automaker founded by Mercedes-Benz and the Swatch watch company. In the early 1990s, when other automakers (particularly those in the U.S.) were starting to think big, growing their fleets with ever-larger SUVs, smart was thinking small. Very small. You could say that when other automakers zigged, smart zagged. The result was the shortest car in the world, and one that has generated huge amounts of buzz in all corners of the planet since its introduction in the mid-1990s.
The petite, instantly recognizable smart car has been described by drivers and reviewers in all sorts of ways: as a Tonka toy, a hypercompact weasel on wheels, a Pokemon with sideburns, and a one-trick pony, as well as jumpy, quirky, charming, cute and cuddly, endearing, and extremely fun. No doubt it's all those things, and more (or less). It's certainly a head-turner on wheels that makes a definitive statement, and many drivers find that to be its most attractive attribute.
Billionaire Nicolas Hayek, the creative force behind Swatch watches, was the first to envision the small, afforable smart car, which he saw as a two-seat, easy-to-park minicar that would appeal to young drivers. Initially he dubbed the car the Swatchmobile, and after a few false starts, allied with Mercedes-Benz in developing his automotive concept. The development process began in 1994, and the first working version, called the fortwo (meaning it's for two passengers) debuted in 1997 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Full production of the car began in 1998. That same year, Swatch dropped out of the company, and Daimler-Benz assumed 100-percent ownership of smart.
Today, more than 750,000 smart cars travel the world's roads, and the car is currently sold in 36 countries. From the beginning, the car has been built in a plant dubbed Smartville, located in the French town of Hambach. The plant itself embraces eco-friendly manufacturing processes, and many of those values made their way into the smart car.
In addition to the smart fortwo, Mercedes has produced several other versions of the car. The smart roadster, available as both a coupe and a convertible, was produced from 2003 to 2005, and Mercedes joined with Mitsubishi to produce the four-passenger smart forfour hatchback from 2004 to 2006. In addition, 2,000 units of the smart crossblade, a dune-buggy-like two-seater, were produced starting in 2002. However, the fortwo has always been the primary and most successful smart car.
Early reviews of the smart fortwo were mixed. Drivers were attracted to the fortwo's uniqueness, and many noted that the short car was surprisingly roomy inside. But drivers and reviewers also noted that the fortwo's ride could be harsh, especially over long distances, and many growled about the fortwo's performance and transmission. Mercedes has made an effort to improve some of those problems in the second-generation fortwo, which will be available in the U.S. starting in 2008.
The Roger Penske Automotive Group will handle U.S. distribution of the smart fortwo. Initially, the U.S. version of the fortwo will be available in three trims. The entry-level fortwo pure coupe will feature a 71-horsepower, 1-liter three-cylinder engine and a five-speed automated manual transmission, which the driver shifts without a clutch. It will feature a solid roof, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, antilock brakes, and an electronic stability program. Stepping up a notch, the smart fortwo passion will include a panorama roof, paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel, and alloy wheels. A fortwo passion cabriolet will include an in-dash six-disc CD changer and a fully automatic convertible top with a glass rear window. Pricing will start under $12,000.