Europe's micro-compact Smart car is about to change its skin.
Two new versions of the two-seater produced by Smart GmbH, a unit of DaimlerChrysler AG, will have a sheet molding compound hood in addition to its thermoplastic side panels.
But as Smart continues its global introduction - with plans to bring a larger version of it to the United States in 2005 - it is hanging onto its brief heritage as well. The four-seat Smart, called the ``Forfour'' will retain styling cues from the existing vehicles.
``We want to produce these cars with the same characteristics that we have now,'' said Christine Bornkessel, a spokeswoman for Smart GmbH, headquartered in BÃ¶bingen, Germany.
The vehicle is entering its fifth year of existence and sales are on the increase, executives noted. The division sold 122,300 of the two-seaters during 2002, up from 116,200 in 2001.
The firm also has expanded into new sales territories, with the Smart now available in 24 countries, 10 more than at the start of 2002. The biggest single automotive sales market, the United States, is awaiting the launch of a new Smart factory in Juiz de Fora, Brazil in 2004.
``With the start of production of a further Smart model in [Brazil], Smart plans to enter the U.S. market in 2005,'' the carmaker said in a Jan. 14 announcement.
Also in January, it began making two roadster versions of the Smart at its factory in Hambach, France, further expanding the car's market appeal. The company boosted employment at the plant 16 percent to 1,140 workers and invested about $100 million to tool up for the launch.
The roadster differs from its thermoplastic-skinned parent car with the use of SMC for the hood, although Smart remains tied to using GE Plastics' Xenoy polycarbonate/polyester resin blend for all other exterior panels, said Venkatakrishnan Umamaheswaran, market development manager for GE auto exteriors.
The four-seat Smart set to begin production in January 2004 in Born, the Netherlands, also is slated at this time to use the Xenoy material, he said. The company has not received confirmation on whether the resin will go into the Brazilian-made versions of the car.
Many plans for the Forfour remain cloaked, including official word on suppliers at Born. The firm will reveal those later this year.
Some information is beginning to leak out, however. Industry publication Ward's Automotive Reports noted Jan. 6 that a supplier park will go inside the ``NedCar'' plant in Born, with Johnson Controls Inc. overseeing production of the cockpit and Peguform GmbH supplying the exterior panels. Officials with JCI said they could not comment, and Bornkessel said Smart will have no comment until the official announcements this summer.
Peguform, the German subsidiary of Venture Holdings Corp. LLC, currently is in insolvency, with court officials seeking a new buyer for the operation. Executives were not immediately available to comment.