8-Foot Smart Car Earns Cult Status

Tuesday, August 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BERLIN (AP) — In jam-packed Potsdamer Platz, the German equivalent of Times Square, the odd-looking Smart car parks where no car has parked before.

Squeezed between a fire hydrant and a stop sign. Wedged between bumpers of two bulkier brutes. Even tucked in nose to curb, something only possible for a car as long as others are wide.

``The police just laugh,'' says proud Smart car owner Goyko Kleensang. ``In fact, everybody smiles when they see one coming down the street.''

With its go-cart wheels, cartoon control panel and garish neon colors, the 8-foot-long, three-cylinder rolling bubble looks like something built by Fisher-Price, not DaimlerChrysler.

But when you're still rounding the block looking for a place to park your Mercedes S class, the gas-guzzler's teeny-tiny, younger sibling doesn't look so laughable any more.

It's those outlandish looks and pint-sized dimensions, however, that are putting DaimlerChrysler's Smart car well on its way to replacing the Volkswagen Beetle as the cult car of the new century.

``I certainly hope so. That way I can say I had one of the first,'' squeals Kleensang, who loves his car so much he launched a Web site dedicated to bringing Smart owners — or ``Smarties'' as they call themselves — together to swap tips, plan trips and generally go gaga over how cute their ``little babies'' are.

Two years after its introduction, the Smart car still triggers stares, smiles and camera shutters. But it's finally shifting into overdrive in Europe's metropolises as a favorite among young, urban individualists — despite sputtering popularity at its introduction.

``You have to be crazy to drive a car like this, and I am crazy. I love this car,'' said 20-year-old Judith Frohnert, posing for a photo with both hands on the wheel of a display model in an upscale Berlin shopping mall, her candy-apple dyed-hair clashing with the car's lime green paint job.

In its short life, the unique Smart has already grabbed an exhibit in New York's Museum of Modern Art and claimed the likes of Michael Jackson, U.S. talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael and auto racing legend Stirling Moss among its proud owners. Americans still have to import their own, however — it's not for sale stateside.

Roughly 130,000 of the cars are on the road in Europe, with Germany and Italy being the biggest markets. And while DaimlerChrysler still has no immediate plans for a U.S. version, it will be rolling out right-hand versions for Great Britain, Japan and Taiwan by the end of next year.

Still, the Smart didn't seem so clever when it was first being developed in conjunction with Swiss watch maker Swatch, the trendy pop designer known for its colored, plastic timepieces.

Fresh off the drawing board, the car hit roadblocks with government safety regulators when prototypes failed the so-called ``moose test.'' With its high center of gravity and narrow wheelbase, the Smart had a tendency to tip over like a toy while swerving to dodge animals.

Then, of course, were its looks.

``When I first saw it, I wondered where the engine could possibly be,'' says 58-year-old Klaus Mueller, a mall onlooker who gave a bright blue display car the once-over, slamming its doors and inspecting the wiring under the steering column.

The engine's in the back, by the way.

In its first year of production, 1998, only 20,000 were sold. But that figure jumped up to 80,000 last year and reached 30,000 for just the first four months of 2000.

In that short time, it's already developed a Smart car culture. Hundreds of Smarties across Europe belong to Smart clubs, organizing social events, road trips and even festivals that draw hundreds of Smart cars to one place.

DaimlerChrysler has put a lot of effort into customizing the car at its production plant in Hamback, France. There's a turbo version, a diesel version and now even a convertible version. A four-seater model is also in the works. The spunky little Smart gets up to 75 miles per gallon, and can still do 0 to 60 in 19 seconds — before maxing out at 80 mph. Selling for between $7,500 and $8,000, most people find it affordable too.

But it has garnered its share of detractors including a German Web site called Smart-hater that posts derisive comics depicting, among other things, a Smart car falling through an open manhole and a guy donning a pair as roller skates.

Still, DaimlerChrysler has grown adept at deflecting sneering reviews, such as one that said comparing the Smart to a golf cart was patently unfair — unfair to the golf cart because with two people on board, at least it still has room for the golf bags.

``It has been estimated that up to 50 percent of the traffic in inner cities is generated by people looking for somewhere to park,'' retorts Smart spokesman Hubert Kogel. ``So the Smart may not be the ideal golf car, but it is the ideal car for the city.''