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Mercedes-Benz Gets Smart

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author photo by Autotrader February 2011

Although the parent company that owns Mercedes-Benz also owns Smart cars (Daimler AG), sales and distribution of these diminutive two-seaters in the United States have, up until now, been the job of Penske. Roger Penske was a successful motor racer who has since applied his drive to creating top car racing teams and making fortunes in various other corners of the automotive world. But Penske has just passed those rights to Mercedes-Benz, saying: “We couldn't give it the muscle it needed from a marketing standpoint.”

Once the negotiations have been finished and the paperwork done, Mercedes-Benz USA will take Smart fully under its wing by July. This works out well for both parties. Since selling 24,622 of the Smart Fortwo in 2008, when the car was launched in the States and gasoline prices were hitting record highs, the sales graph has been pointing to the ground. Only 5,927 were sold in 2010 and 358 this January. On the other hand, Mercedes-Benz is looking at its corporate average fuel economy and wants to sell more small cars. Warranties and service plans for existing Smart Fortwo owners are unaffected by this latest development.

Potential Smart customers will no longer be going to any dedicated dealers, but into Benz showrooms. One model they won’t find on the floor will be a four-door version made in conjunction with Nissan/Renault, since that project has just been scrapped in the wake of this news.

However, the battery-powered Smart Fortwo ED (Electric Drive) is still in the brochure, even if only 250 are to be imported this year and leased – not sold – in selected areas, at $599 a month for four years. Although it is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. After this first tentative wave, the plan is for full production versions to come over in 2012 as 2013 models, with enhanced battery packs that can extend range from the current 84 miles.

The electric Smart may well turn out to be the, um, smartest Fortwo, since it is well suited to city driving and does not employ the gasoline-powered version’s clunky five-speed automated manual transmission, a piece of hardware that has found precious little love among the driving public.

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Mercedes-Benz Gets Smart - Autotrader