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Steady Sales Fuel Smart Car's US Division


The economic crisis has sent auto sales on a downward spiral, but makers of the European Smart car say, one year after its debut in the U.S., Americans are still buying smart. It might be the little engine that could.

At just over two-and-a-half meters long, the "Smart Fortwo," made by Mercedes-Benz, is half the size of most SUVs, and the smallest car sold in the U.S.

Ken Farris, a salesman at a "smart center" near Washington D.C., says there is nothing small about the two-seater's success, especially at a time when other brands are struggling.

"There are some companies that are really taking it hard. I think this is survival of the fittest, and we are doing well, actually. We are doing okay. We are still above water, and as spring approaches, we will probably start picking up the pace again," said Farris.

Already a sensation in Europe, the gasoline-powered Smart car was delivered to its first U.S. customer in January 2008, making the United States the 37th country to sell it. Recognized for its low fuel consumption, as fuel prices soared, so did the vehicle's sales.

Smart USA's central operations director Robert Wilshaw said almost 25,000 Smart cars were sold the first year, exceeding expectations.

Wilshaw said,"Demand, especially through last summer, was so overwhelming that we really had to increase our production levels to satisfy the demand. Otherwise, the wait period for the cars would have stretched years."

And Wilshaw added that Smart still gets a strong response from customers.

D.C. resident Kate Clinton, who signed up for her Smart convertible months ago, said, "I think there is a ‘wow’ factor. People always stop and talk to you when you are at an intersection. Even the people that I told today that I was coming here were saying, 'Oooh wow, wish we could do that’.”

Whatever that "wow" stems from - the car's $12,000 price tag, its cute design, park-ability or its high safety ratings compared to other small cars - one thing is certain. More Americans are getting Smart. There are now 76 Smart car dealerships in the U.S., most of them in urban areas.

A bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape.

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