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A 'Smart' alternative to the SUV?

Small on space but big on mileage, DaimlerChrysler's subcompact Smart ForTwo is about to drive into the American auto market. Photos: Will America drive small and Smart?

Automaker DaimlerChrysler's fuel-stingy, supercompact Smart ForTwo, sold in Europe since 1998, will be available to U.S. car buyers within two years, the company said Wednesday.

Americans' affection for monstrous SUVs might be withering in the face of rising gas prices, but no one's really sure whether they'll readily accept the little Smart ForTwo as a remedy for fuel-pump woes. More than 750,000 ForTwo units have been sold throughout Europe over the past eight years, DaimlerChrysler says. The car is also available in Canada.

Smart ForTwo

The ForTwo isn't a hybrid, nor is it actually "smart" in the high-tech sense--i.e., it doesn't contain any fancy chips that let it talk or fly or automatically know where its driver wants to go--but the pod-shaped car certainly gets impressive gas mileage, averaging 46.3 miles per gallon in cities and 70.6 on the highway, according to DaimlerChrysler.

And the Smart ForTwo is tiny; the two-seater (hence the name--there's also a Smart ForFour in Europe) is less than nine feet long, slightly less than five feet wide, and a smidgen over five feet tall. Compare that with the Mini Cooper, the vehicle most Americans think of when "subcompact car" is mentioned. The Mini is about three feet longer and six inches wider, not to mention more than 900 pounds heavier.

But like any car, the ForTwo has its drawbacks. With a top speed of 84 miles per hour, the vehicle will leave speed enthusiasts unimpressed. And it may prove impossible for the ForTwo to convince American consumers that anything that small doesn't automatically equal foreign. After all, even Hollywood has contributed to a thoroughly Euro image for the car: Tom Hanks rode in one through the streets of Paris in the film adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code," as did Steve Martin in this year's remake of "The Pink Panther."

Plus, with plenty of other fuel-efficient options arriving on American roads, DaimlerChrysler's addition won't be nearly as notable. Regardless, the Smart ForTwo may well have its best luck in urban areas, where its maximum speed seems acceptable and where a nine-foot-long car could be a tremendous advantage in the cutthroat culture of city parking.

DaimlerChrysler made environmental headlines recently when it sold several dozen hybrid buses to the city of San Francisco, which, in the face of fears about global warming, hopes to be 100 percent emission-free in municipal transportation by 2020.