Life in the Cute Lane

By Simone Baribeau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

Elizabeth Szewczyk saw a tiny picture of the Smart Fortwo in a car magazine, and knew it was her next ride. She already owned her ideal car -- a bright yellow 2005 Jeep Wrangler -- but the gas mileage was horrible. She remembers watching the fuel gauge drop as she drove down the highway and realizing it was time to trade in her childhood dream.

She loved the strong American feel of the Wrangler, but the eye-catching Smart car helped her get over it.

"Here I am driving this thing and I still feel amazing," said Szewczyk, 27. "The Jeep was stylish, but I never got the attention before that I get with this."

The two-seater Smart car, manufactured by Mercedes-Benz Cars and sold in Europe for a decade, hit the U.S. market in January. Most range from $14,000 to about $18,000, taxes and fees included. By the end of June, Smart had well over 30,000 people on a waiting list -- which is now about a year long -- and had sold almost 11,400 cars.

Smart markets its car as an eco-friendly vehicle that appeals to trendsetters of all ages and income levels. The car's tagline exhorts consumers to "open your mind to the car that challenges the status quo." But don't expect Smart car centers to be filled only with Greenpeace activists. Many local Smart car buyers are owners of the iconic symbol of American consumerism: the sport-utility vehicle. And they aren't necessarily going from monster to midget cold turkey; many keep their gas guzzlers and use their fuel-efficient car for city driving.

Sean Sarraf, brand manager for the Germantown Smart center, estimates that more than half of his customers own SUVs. When a big vehicle pulls up at the Annapolis Smart center, employees joke that they can predict that the customer will be heading to their dealership, not the adjacent Mercedes showroom.

Smart is benefiting from an overall drive toward smaller car use. From June 2007 to June 2008, U.S. market share for large vehicles fell almost 7 percentage points to 35.3 percent, while market share for compact vehicles grew over 5 percentage points, according to Tom Libby, analyst at Power Information Network.

But gas mileage alone doesn't explain Smart's appeal. At 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 mpg highway, Smart is the most fuel-efficient, fully gas-powered vehicle on the road, although not by much. If gas were to reach $5 a gallon, every 10,000 miles would save Smart drivers only about $200 or $300 over a comparably priced Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris, which come with back seats.

SUV-turned-Smart drivers may be among the last to the environmental party, but they're dressed to get noticed -- the small, unique-looking cars turn heads.

"The Smart is the new green statement, the [Toyota hybrid] Prius is old hat," said Jack Plunkett, chief executive of market research firm Plunkett Research. "You can't overlook the cute and new factor."

Carolyn Alper, frustrated with spending $60 a week on gas for her Lexus RX 330, said other fuel-efficient cars didn't have the same appeal as the Smart car.

"I walked into the dealership, and they had [the Smart Fortwo] and it just had my name on it," said the interior designer. The Smart cars, she says, "are cute. Kind of new and bright and shiny."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company