What’s Happening


By Noel Adams

March 23rd 2006

The Pink Panther movies, with their bungling detective Clouseau played so well by Peter Sellers, has reached almost cult status. The film has now been re-released, with Steve Martin in the staring role. When they were looking for the car that Clouseau would drive, they selected the diminutive Smart ForTwo, a microcar being produced by MCC, a division of Daimler Chrysler.

Daimler Chrysler has gone back and forth on bringing the Smart line of vehicles to the US, with the direction being mostly back. They were originally going to bring the Smart ForTwo over here, but cancelled those plans. Most recently they announced they were going to develop an SUV based on the Smart ForFour platform, called the Smart ForMore, which was targeted at the US market.

Smart had never been profitable, so their board met on March 31, 2005 to put together a plan to reach profitability by 2007. Part of this plan was to halt all development on the Smart ForMore. Instead, intensive development would be done on a successor to the Smart ForTwo.

At the end of August, Smart also inked a deal with Mitsubishi for the Japanese automaker to supply its three cylinder engine for the Smart ForTwo’s replacement.

Production of the Smart Roadster also ceased at the end of November, 2005 due to lower than expected sales. The Smart Roadster was a stylish open topped sports car that would have slotted nicely into the niche currently dominated by the Mazda Miata, providing a nice entry vehicle for Daimler Chrysler, and doing much to improve their fleet mileage.

Smart is now left with only two models, the two-seat Smart ForTwo and the four-seat Smart ForFour. At the 2005 Frankfurt Motor Show, MCC showed the souped-up Brabas version of the Smart ForFour. This car develops 210 horsepower and a top speed of 146 mph. It is currently on sale though Smart Dealerships. They also showed the Crosstown, a two-seat car that can only be described as “Smart on Safari”, or as one commentator called it, “a cross between a Smart ForTwo and a Jeep Wrangler”.

The rugged Crosstown has the same charm as the Smart ForTwo from which it was developed, but the styling, such as a flat fold down windshield, gives the impression that it is ready for the Serengeti. This jungle look is also enhanced by outside hinges that give the car the rugged appearance you would expect on a safari vehicle. It is driven by a gas-electric hybrid drive that gives it a top speed of 84 mph and fuel consumption of about 60 miles per gallon. Safety is addressed by the same Tridion safety cell used in the current Smarts. The effectiveness of this high tensile steel cage has been demonstrated by driving the Smart into a concrete barrier at 70mph; the resulting crash flattened the front crumple zone but the cage remained intact and both doors could still be opened.

The Crosstown was also developed to meet US DOT safety standards, which has fueled speculation that the Crosstown was destined for the US market. Wes Siler, writing in Intersection Magazine, reported that this concept would be launched in the US in 2007. I asked Wes about this and he told me "The short answer is maybe. Several months ago I contacted Smart’s UK PR office who confirmed that the car would be sold there starting in 2007 or 2008. I called back shortly after to confirm and they told me it definitely would not be. Helpful, aren't they?” Enquiries from Electrifying Times to Daimler Chrysler’s publicity office in the US have gone unanswered.

Daimler Chrysler has stated its intention to get the Smart division to the breakeven point by 2007. They could do this a whole lot easier if they sold Smart in the US. Both the Smart ForFour and the Smart ForTwo would make excellent entry-level vehicles for either Daimler Chrysler or Mercedes Benz, something they need very badly as the small fuel efficient Japanese vehicles bleed away market share.

Demand had been demonstrated by California based ZAP, who modified the Smart ForTwo to meet US safety standards and placed in on sale at around $20,000. They claim to have received over 150,000 orders from their dealer network and tried to place an order for one billion dollars worth of Smart cars, but Daimler Chrysler refused to accept the order. This probably has more to do with ZAP not having the capital to pay out one billion dollars that with Daimler Chrysler trying to stop them from selling the Smart in the US.

In the end, ZAP was only able to deliver 9 vehicles because of insufficient capacity at the facility that retrofits the US required modifications. ZAP wasn’t able to find a manufacturer with the capacity needed to do the retrofits. This resulted in ZAP loosing DOT certification for 2005, but they now have 2006 certification and, as of March, 2006 have resumed shipping vehicles to their network of approximately 30 dealers.

The dealer I talked to told me that ZAP had shipped 80 vehicles and had another 100 being modified to meet US standards. The cars, which are bought retail in Germany and modified to US DOT and EPA standards at G&K Automotive Conversions in Santa Ana, can currently be sold in all states except California and five others that apply California’s stricter emissions standards. ZAP is working on certification in California.

Zap has also released the results of EPA testing on the Americanized Smart which received a combined fuel economy rating of 40 mpg which puts it squarely ahead of the pack for gasoline fueled vehicles. Only the Honda Insight, Honda Civic hybrid, and Toyota Prius give better mileage numbers. Mileage numbers for the Smart are very similar to those provided by Turbo diesels like the VW Jetta TDI, which also don’t meet California’s strict air quality rules Its fuel economy should even beat out some of the new arrivals like the Camry Hybrid and the Saturn View Green Line.

ZAP’s position is precarious. If the Smart is profitable then Daimler Chrysler can bring vehicles over here and undercut ZAP by a considerable margin. On the other hand, they might be happy to let ZAP assume the risk here in the US while they take in orders through their European fleet dealers; the current way that ZAP is acquiring vehicles.

The Smart has also been a vehicle that has attracted EV converters. In the UK, Zyteck converted a Smart using Zebra batteries and AVT is offering a conversion with a choice of lead acid or Lithium batteries. Here in the US, Wavecrest converted a Roadster to demonstrate its hub motor technology. Emotion Mobility, a company owned by Donald Panoz, also attempted to use an EV version of the Smart ForTwo as part of a carshare program based in Atlanta, but never got the cars into production.

Now that the Smart is being sold in the US by ZAP, it remains to be seen if Daimler Chrysler will step up to the plate and make this surprisingly popular car available through its dealer network to US consumers, who are becoming more and more conscious of fuel efficiency, global warming, and the need to reduce dependence on oil imports.