The tiny Smart Car, with its molded-in-color plastic body panels, is taking off with consumers in Europe and beginning to pick up sales in Japan.
Now executives are considering whether to launch the mini vehicle in North America — home of the megasized sport utility vehicle.
"At the moment, there is a study running in the U.S. about whether to launch the car yet," said Simone Maier, a spokeswoman for the Smart Car, produced by DaimlerChrysler AG subsidiary Micro Concept Car GmbH, in a May 10 telephone interview.
MCC expects to make a decision on any North American expansion by the end of this year.
Buyers picked up 102,000 Smart cars last year, up from 80,000 in 1999. This year, MCC expects a boost of at least 10 percent.
During the first quarter of 2001, it sold 25,080 vehicles — more than a 35 percent jump from the same period in 2000.
Considering the reception the Smart received when it first debuted in 1998 — with reviewers saying the vehicle with its interchangeable injection molded panels "lacked dynamic flair" — the car has managed quite well, Maier said.
"At the beginning, people either hated it or they loved it," she said. "There was no middle ground.
"Now it's a cult, really."
The Smart had a strong reception in Italy, where a car just a little more than 8 feet in length lent itself to zipping easily through narrow streets in Rome or Florence.
The Smart's mileage rate of 57 miles per gallon helped push sales to buyers seeking to squeeze their dollar out of high-priced fuel, while addition of a diesel engine boosted interest in Germany.
>From its original six model versions, the Smart now has 13 varieties available and more on the way, including an electric-powered engine.
The company's style offerings even extend to the body panels, made with GE Plastics' Xenoy polycarbonate/polyester resin blend.
"They're doing all the right things, picking up momentum," said Venkatakrishnan Umamaheswaran, market development manager automotive exteriors for GE. "They're introducing new colors, new patterns."
Smart also is preparing to expand production from the original factory in Hambach, France, to Born in the Netherlands — where the NedCar assembly plant will begin making a four-door Smart by 2004.
NedCar operators already are preparing for the switch, including educating themselves on resins.
"We'll have to learn to work with new processes, such as plastic injection molding," said NedCar President Chris Dewulf in an interview with Automotive News Europe, a sister publication to Plastics News.
The company has not decided yet whether it will use plastic panels originally produced in Hambach for the two-door versions of the Smart, create a new injection molding operation on site or outsource the panels to a supplier, he said.
"It's all been very interesting," Maier said. "It's getting better and better."