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Smart aims to rival Mini in US

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What's less than five feet wide, eight feet long, seats two, and gets more than 60 miles per gallon?

If you answered correctly, you must be Smart.

The Smart is the latest hip tiny vehicle hoping to follow the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen New Beetle in the United States market. The difference is that Smart is even smaller - and not the least bit retro.

While DaimlerChysler shelved plans to unveil the Smart Formore SUV at last week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, it did send Smart's tiny, colorful Fortwo coupes buzzing around the city, drawing looks wherever they went.

The car comes in a rainbow of Skittles colors, with replaceable body panels if the mood strikes to change hues.

Inside, there's plenty of room - for two. The seats are comfortable and spacious. There's enough room on the floor or in the cargo area atop the engine in the rear for a briefcase. The instruments and vents stick up from the dashboard like a frog's eyes. They look funky, but not cheap.

The diesel engine accelerates the 1,600-pound pod to 60 miles an hour in less than 20 seconds. So it's not a racehorse, but fast enough. The car feels small only after it hits one of Detroit's infamous potholes or pulls into a parallel parking space (with four feet to spare on either end).

The future of Smart, however, is unclear. Although they've zipped along European roadways for six years, Fortwos haven't sold in large enough quantities to turn a profit, analysts say. Daimler has said it won't sell Fortwos here, but is reportedly reconsidering that stance.

One reason: Zap, a US firm in Santa Rosa, Calif., plans to import the car through middlemen, modify them to meet US emissions standards, and then sell them in the US - just in time to look Smarter than the Mini driver who just showed up next door.


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