Q&A: Is the Tiny Smart Car a Dumb Idea?

Sometimes big ideas—and sellers—come in small packages. At least that's what Daimler (the Mercedes-Benz folks) think of their Smart Car, an eight-and-a-half-feet-long, five-and-a-half-feet-wide two-seater that's been popular in European cities for more than a decade. Now the Smart Car is headed to the United States. But can a car not much bigger than a golf cart make a dent in SUV-loving America?

The French-built Smarts come rolling off container ships in January. The company says it has already received 30,000 preorders, each involving a $99 deposit. "Americans are begging for this car," says Smart USA President David C. Schembri. To be more exact, it's Americans living in cities along both coasts that seem most interested in getting a Smart, which starts at $12,000 and gets about 40 mpg. NEWSWEEK's Tara Weingarten talked to Schembri about how a Smart might do in a run-in with an SUV, why Consumer Reports hated the Smart, and if Americans are too fat to fit in such a small car. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In America bigger is better. People think it means safer, even if that's not true. Who wants a bite-size car?
David C. Schembri:
I love this question. The logical conclusion to that question is that we should all be driving locomotives or 18-wheelers. The answer is we should all be getting smaller, as every other market in the world has done, for a variety of reasons including safety, economy, environmental and urban congestion issues.

Yeah, but really people aren't forsaking the SUV. So are you dead meat if you're hit while driving a Smart?
Any time you're hit by an SUV it's a dangerous situation. It doesn't matter what you're driving. But the Smart will work hard to protect you. The safety management system of the Smart is a safety cell, a reinforced steel cage that acts very much like a NASCAR roll cage. You'll notice that you sit up high, eye-to-eye with other drivers, so this also allows crash energy to be absorbed underneath the car. And there are standard safety features that are usually found only in luxury automobiles, like the electronic stability program, four front airbags, including head and thorax protection, ABS brakes and something called electronic brake-force distribution that helps the car stop fast. This is a tough car. It's David vs. Goliath.

A recent Consumer Reports review of Smart claims it's "one of the worst cars they've ever tested." What gives?
They tested a car that was never intended for the American market. It was a European version and doesn't have many of the stringent safety specs that are required here in the States. There are about 90 new parts on the American version that were not on the version Consumer Reports tested.

Another uniquely American trait is that we're fat. Do you have to be as skinny as an Olsen twin to fit?
I have a friend who weighs 500 pounds, and he had no problem comfortably fitting inside. I've also had two people in it who are six-foot-eight, and they had no problems. It's incredibly roomy and tall inside. It's as tall as any standard car.

With just two seats, it's the perfect car for the friendless. And you don't have to be nice and offer people rides.
Actually, it's the perfect car for teenagers. What better car to buy for your teenager than one without a back seat?

Now you're taking away all their fun.
No, not for that reason. The latest research shows that the biggest reason teens get in accidents is because of distractions from backseat riders. This solves the problem.

Is this just a do-good-mobile that's all marketing hype?
Smart is light, just 1,750 pounds, and we're seeing about 40 mpg combined city and highway driving, though it's not yet rated by the EPA. You feel good driving it, and you start to feel a sense of social responsibility from it. I equate it with other natural resources. If you're in a restaurant alone, you wouldn't order dinner for five, would you? Why drive a car large enough for five people if you're just driving alone? You can help out other drivers by taking up a smaller parallel parking space, consume less fuel, thereby helping the environment, and feel great about it. Why is that bad?

What's Smart's coolest feature?
Its size.

So will your marketing campaign say "Size Matters"?
I don't want to give you that sound bite.