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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Customers line up for tiny Smart car

Thousands of motorists want to be among the first owners of the fuel-sipping Smart car in the United States, demand that is racing past...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Thousands of motorists want to be among the first owners of the fuel-sipping Smart car in the United States, demand that is racing past production capacity, Daimler AG executives said Tuesday.

Smart, which reaches U.S. dealerships in January, has received $99 deposits from more than 30,000 customers to reserve the two-seater and about nine in 10 are placing full orders, said Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche. More than 50,000 motorists have taken the tiny vehicle for a test drive at road shows around the country.

"We were totally amazed by the kind of reaction we got," Zetsche said at a breakfast with reporters. He declined to release the vehicle's 2008 sales projections in the U.S. but said the orders are "going far beyond the production capacity we have available for next year."

The 8-foot, 8-inch Smart Fortwo, which can park nose-to-curb, is being marketed toward urban drivers, college students and baby boomers who no longer need a large vehicle. A spin aboard a Smart through a city neighborhood typically evokes stares and double-takes.

Smart USA President Dave Schembri said customers who order the vehicle now would likely receive it in late 2008 or early 2009 but some vehicles may be available for new customers before late 2008.

While 20 percent of the orders have been placed in California and the vehicle has drawn interest in East Coast cities, the cars have proved very popular in the Seattle area.

Kirkland's Green Car Co. has been importing Smart cars since February 2005 and has sold more than 400 of them, said sales manager Bryce Lathrop.

"We laid the groundwork very well for them," he said. The Green Car Co. will continue importing versions of the Smart that are not available from U.S. dealerships, including diesel and hybrid versions, he said. It won't be selling the domestic version.

Schembri said the company has been surprised by the response in smaller markets such as Omaha, Neb.; Jackson, Miss.; and Tulsa, Okla.

The 1,800-pound car, which gets 40 miles per gallon on the highway, is about to hit the U.S. market as Congress imposes tougher fuel efficiency standards for new cars and trucks.

Amid concerns over climate change, the company is testing a fleet of about 100 electric-drive Smart cars in London. Zetsche said the company hopes to develop a similar partnership with a U.S. city to study electric versions of the vehicle.

Smart has placed a steel safety cage and four air bags in the compartment to protect motorists. The car provides standard electronic stability control to help prevent the vehicle from swerving off the road. "Safety has to be a given," Zetsche said.

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The Fortwo is designed to get four out of five stars on U.S. crash tests and recently got four stars on an equivalent European test.

Zetsche was the chief executive of DaimlerChrysler before Daimler sold 80.1 percent of Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management earlier this year.

Smart, which was launched in Europe in 1998, will build the vehicles in France and sell them through 73 U.S. dealers, including Mercedes dealers and dealerships that are part of the Penske Automotive Group. The only authorized dealer in Washington is O'Brien Auto Group, which is expected soon to open a Smart dealership in the Southcenter area.

Smart, a division of Daimler's Mercedes-Benz brand, has a base price of $11,590 for the Fortwo Pure. A Fortwo Passion Coupe starts at $13,590; the Smart Fortwo Passion convertible starts at $16,950.

Seattle Times business reporter Kristi Heim contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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