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CAR CULTURE

Gas Prices May Push U.S. Toward More Efficient Cars

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page G02

Some good decisions hurt. DaimlerChrysler AG's recent announcement that it is scrapping the Smart ForMore SUV and delaying the introduction of the Smart car line in the United States is an example.

The company was about to make a mistake. The little car was introduced in Europe in 1998 as the Smart City Coupe -- a two-door, micro-compact two-seater that could run for weeks on less than 10 gallons of gasoline or diesel fuel and could be parked on the sidewalks and in the alleys of cities such as Rome with room to spare.

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That is how Smart and its various iterations became known -- as tiny city runners, perfect for the congested inner sanctums of the world's metropolitan areas -- or so it seemed.

The United States is a part of the world. In terms of consumption of the world's resources, especially fossil fuels, it is one of the greediest parts. We often have a hard time here distinguishing between water and gasoline, which is why we waste both.

At the moment, the United States is also the world's single largest automotive market, which means that it's the most lucrative. Big money seems to dance well with big cars and trucks, and we have developed an entire ritual, replete with mythological beliefs, to keep the rhythm going.

Big is better, ba-boom, ba-bang. Big is safer, ca-choom, ca-chang! Ain't nobody if you drivin' small; but you're ruling the world if you ridin' tall!

Given that nonsense, it was understandable that the people at DaimlerChrysler initially were suckered into the idea of bringing the first Smart to the United States as the Smart ForMore SUV. Americans understand SUVs, DaimlerChrysler reasoned. They don't understand micro-cars.

"I just think it's too small for your country," said Juergen E. Schrempp, DaimlerChrysler's managing chairman, explaining why his company was reluctant to introduce the Smart two-seater in America. "Americans are looking for something bigger," he said, speaking to me at a Geneva car show last year.

Thus, DaimlerChrysler had decided to go with the Smart SUV -- which would have been a disaster for several reasons, including:

• It would have lacked originality. The U.S. market already is crowded with small SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox, Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson, and Ford Escape, to name a few.


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