Smart Car to Get 4-Door Upgrade to Counter U.S. Size Worries

Smart cars

Smart cars are just taking off in the U.S., and they've been hugely popular in Europe. But the tiny eco-friendly two-seat city car format isn't entirely compatible with U.S. mores, and so Penske Automobile has contracted with Nissan to build a four-seat upgrade.

Smart is actually owned by Daimler AG, based in Germany, where the original concept of an ultra-petite, eco- and cash-conscious vehicle was conceived. The core idea was to build a commuter vehicle that was sensitive to narrow city streets and could even be parked sideways-on in parking spots to optimize space utilization. The original design underwent a radical overhaul in recent years, increasing the vehicle's size and engine power along with more sophisticated safety systems (and most recently a "micro-hybrid drive" option for fuel economy)--it was rechristened the FourTwo. [Disclosure: I have one, and let me tell you there's not much that compares to the ride you get when you roar along the Autoroute with your foot down and the European wind in your hair. Or when you beat most other cars off the mark at the lights.]

The car went on sale in the U.S. just in 2008 through local distributor Penske Automotive, where it was met with skepticism about its safety and utility but sold relatively well. Sales in recent times have been less than stellar, though, and FourTwo figures have dropped 62% this year (against an industry background of 10% increases).

Dare we imagine that the American consumer is now content the economic crunch is over, and is back to its skeptical and gas-guzzler-centric ways concerning the size of the weird little Euro-car? It's highly plausible.

Penske thinks so, so it's commissioned Nissan Motor Co to build a new five-door, four-seat version of the smart. The car will be built in a Nissan plant in the U.S., and will most likely take key design ideals from the two-seat Smart, with its motorcycle engine and rigid safety endoskeleton.

But a four-seat Smart is by no means a new thing. Between April 2004 and June 2006 Smart also offered the ForFour car, a five-door, four-seat vehicle that was much more conventional than the FourTwo since it was based on the 2003 Mitsubishi Colt. Sales weren't as successful as the original Smart, and this, along with other business considerations led Daimler to withdraw the car from production in 2005. There is some murmuring that due to ongoing popularity of the newer ForTwo and the original ForFour in Europe, the ForFour will be revived and earn a new design. As of the moment it's unclear if this plan is in concert with, or parallel to the Penske plans.

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