It’s doubtful there has ever been a mass-produced car as polarizing as the Mercedes-Benz Smart car. On the one hand, it has developed an almost cult-like following among early adopters enamored with its quirky, funky, even kitschy styling and its environmental friendliness. Less than nine feet long, it’s the smallest street-legal car in the U.S. On the other hand, largely due to its diminutive stature, it’s been panned by automotive journalists for its poor ride, deadened steering, less-than-smooth transmission and total lack of cargo space.
Originally called the Swatchmobile, the micro car was the dream of Nicholas Hayek, originator of the Swatch watch, who sought to build an affordable city car that would achieve excellent fuel-economy ratings and fit easily into Europe’s tiny parking spots. It was to be built through a joint venture between Swatch and Volkswagen. But when that deal soured, Mercedes-Benz stepped in. The Swatchmobile eventually became known as the Smart car, a moniker derived from the internal Mercedes name for the original concept vehicle – the Swatch Mercedes Art Car.
All seemed well at first, but the two companies soon began to butt heads over a myriad of design and performance issues. Amid mounting costs, the deal went south. Whether Mr Hayek and Swatch pulled out on their own or were forced out by Mercedes remains the subject of debate. Regardless, Mercedes took complete control of the project in 1998. The Smart car made its debut at the Frankfurt auto show in 1997 and was in production by the middle of 1998. Originally sold only in Europe, the second-generation Smart – the Smart Fortwo – officially went on sale in the United States and Canada in 2008.
The Smart Fortwo is a two-seat, 2-door hatchback available as a hardtop or as a roll-back cloth convertible. Its electrically powered derivative, the Fortwo ED, is the least expensive electric car in the U.S. The Fortwo line has evolved considerably since its introduction and is now one of the more fun-to-drive and environmentally friendly vehicles on the market. Its impact on automotive culture is best described as legendary. Customizing the Smart Fortwo has become a form of artistic expression for its owners, and the market for parts and accessories is now an industry unto itself.