Daimler-Benz Gets...smart

Who needs capital letters when you are...smart?  That's what Mercedes Car Group is banking on as it prepares to unleash the global automotive brand -- called "smart" -- in 2006.  The groundbreaking car line will make its debut in the U.S. with a new sport utility specifically designed for the American consumer. Named the smart formore, (still no capital letters) the new smart utility vehicle will bring the brand's unique engineering, design, exuberant character and funny naming scheme to one of the American market's most popular segments.

The "entry-level premium car manufacturer," as it calls itself, debuted in 1998 and offers six models in 31 markets. Among the six models are the original smart, the city coupe, the cabrio, crossblade, roadster and roadster-coupe. The newest smart is also the brand's first four-door model, called the forfour, which began production early this year and went on sale in many foreign markets in April. New smart models are given names that have a direct connection to the uses of the vehicle, so one has to fear what a farm-oriented smart pick-up truck might be called (smart manurehauler?).

Currently, smart models are built in the smartville (isn't that Superman's hometown?) complex in Hambach, France, and at the NedCar facility in Born, Netherlands. Starting in 2006, the smart formore will be built in the Mercedes-Benz plant in Juiz de Fora, Brazil. The plant has a capacity of 60,000 cars per year, half of which will be sold in the U.S. if U.S. buyers respond to the vehicle as smart predicts.

The smart story began in April 1994 with the founding of a joint-venture company called Micro Compact Car AG by Mercedes-Benz AG and SMH, the maker of Swatch watches. After a somewhat rocky relationship, Daimler-Benz AG took over the Swatch Group's stake in November 1998, and the approximately 100 smart retail centers in Western Europe became part of the newly merged DaimlerChrysler organization the following year.

Even as Swatch was being eased out of the picture, the two-passenger smart fortwo was launched in October 1998, marking the debut of the new brand and the birth of a radical new vehicle concept as well. Only eight feet long, the smart fortwo helped to develop a previously non-existent market segment, the micro city car. It was specially designed for use in large, crowded urban areas -- two of these innovative vehicles will fit crosswise in one conventional parking space. The original city-coupe (now the fortwo) was available with a choice of two different gasoline engines. A CDI diesel was added for 2000, along with the open-top smart fortwo cabrio.

With the launch of the smart formore, the brand's first four-door model, sales are expected to increase well beyond 2003's 124,000 this year. Retail sales began with 100 distribution points, and now smart vehicles are available from more than 700 sales partners around the world, each with its own distinctive showroom.

One of the brand's unique claims to fame is its innovative manufacturing center. Based close to France's border with Germany, smartville is a unique operation that features 11 different plants, many operated by suppliers rather than by smart itself. To minimize transportation and storage, parts and pre-assembled sections are delivered less than 30 feet from the final assembly line. During assembly, each smart vehicle passes through 140 different stations in just 4 1/2 hours. There 2,000 employees (including supplier employees) build 120,000 fortwo coupes and cabrios a year.  Interestingly, the company headquarters is located across the Rhine River in Boblingen, Germany.  A division of Mercedes-Benz USA, smart USA, will be responsible for U.S. sales and marketing.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has followed the progress of smart cars since its inception.