- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

Smart or just plain stubborn? That's been the debate inside DaimlerChrysler almost since the inception of the automaker's micro-car operation known as Smart.
The division, which makes tiny, inexpensive 2-seat commuter cars sold through a separate dealer network, has been a money loser for DaimlerChrysler and will continue to be so for at least another three years. Many insiders long have wanted to dump the division, plagued early on with engineering snafus and major marketing missteps.
But Mercedes-Benz head Juergen Hubbert, who oversees the operation and has been one of its strongest supporters, took the occasion of the recent Frankfurt Motor Show unveiling of Smart's new Tridion4 concept to defend the decision to stand behind the beleaguered micro-car division.
The 4-door Tridion4 is expected to form the basis for Smart's first expansion beyond 2-seaters in 2004. It will culminate a product offensive that will see a new roadster and sports coupe bow in 2003 and lead to what DaimlerChrysler hopes will be black ink beginning in 2004.
"As you know, we had to learn a lot of things in a painful way," Mr. Hubbert says of Smart.
"At the beginning we surely tried to do too much at once and underestimated the amount of money, patience and effort it takes to build up such a concept. Maybe many of the things we hoped to achieve at the beginning were simply too visionary and demanded not just too much of us, but also of the public and customers."
But he says things learned at Smart have helped Mercedes refine its manufacturing processes elsewhere. And certainly, Smart finally seems to have found a small but growing audience in Europe.
It is no longer unusual to see the tiny cars tooling around the streets of Frankfurt or even motoring along Germany's high-speed autobahn usually in the slow lane.
The division now offers three distinct models with 13 variants, and more than 250,000 have been built since start-up in 1998. Milestones are beginning to be noted: the division has sold 35,000 convertibles since March 2000 and 40,000 diesel-powered models since December 1999.
Production of right-hand-drive versions of the cars, bound for the U.K. and Japan, began earlier in September. This year, sales are up 9.6%, and headed toward a record 110,000 units, executives say.
The cars also will be coming to the U.S., but initially only with battery power and only for fleet use. It is unclear if and when American consumers may get a crack at the cars.
But with other automakers now getting in on the micro-car market in Europe, it appears time finally may have caught up with the Smart concept.
DaimlerChrysler's stubbornness may very well pay off. Mr. Hubbert certainly thinks so. "In retrospect, if you were to ask me about Smart, I can only say that I would do it again but a little differently," he says.
WARD'S AUTOMOTIVE INTERNATIONAL

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