Usually, Italian exotic sports cars are best at getting other motorists' attention when driving down the road. But the diminutive "Smart car," as many people refer to it, turns just as many heads. But in this case, a Smart is about fuel economy and efficiency, not performance.
Smart began in 1993 as a joint venture between Daimler-Benz and Swiss watchmaker Swatch, creating a company known as Micro Compact Car AG headquartered in Biel, Switzerland. (It would later move to Germany and be known simply as Smart.) Its "city cars" would feature the build quality and engineering expertise of Mercedes-Benz, while Swatch would contribute its funky design philosophy. The resulting two-passenger Smart City-Coupe was designed for a European urban environment, with a specific emphasis placed on fuel economy and parking ease. The City-Coupe could theoretically be able to park perpendicular in a parallel-parking spot. (The wheelbase is the width of most other cars, after all.)
Because it was such a tiny car, Smart created the "tridion" safety cell (the silver or black portion of the body) to assure the City-Coupe could withstand impacts from exponentially bigger vehicles. Made from three layers of steel reinforced at strategic points, the cell was designed to absorb and redistribute crash energy away from the vehicle's occupants. Side impacts are shielded by steel door beams and reinforced axles.
Daimler-Benz bought Swatch out shortly after the City-Coupe's introduction just as the Smart started to generate hype around the world for its revolutionary take on personal transportation. Initial sales began in nine continental European countries in 1998, and the car proved popular with consumers.
This success led to an eventual expansion of the Smart car brand with the introduction of additional Smart models, including the Roadster and Roadster-Coupe in 2003 and the Forfour sedan in 2004. Reaction to these model lines was lukewarm at best, however, as consumers found them to be overpriced. This failure led to a dramatic downturn in Smart's fortunes, eventually putting it on DaimlerChrysler's chopping block before CEO Dieter Zetsche saved it with a new business model built exclusively around the City-Coupe, which had been renamed Fortwo.
More than 770,000 units and 36 countries later, the second-generation Fortwo debuted in 2006. With only a slight size increase, the general look of the iconic city car remained, but the interior and often-criticized automanual transmission received significant changes and safety was improved. The biggest news, however, was that Smart would be expanding into the United States, where rising gas prices had shifted the market toward smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. While there is no mainstream vehicle that embodies those two criteria better than the Fortwo, only time will tell if Americans who once laughed at Smart will embrace it the way Europeans and others around the world have.