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Many a car model has started life in Europe, reaching America only after proving itself elsewhere in the world. That's how smart cars arrived, placed on sale in Europe and other parts of the world, including Canada and Mexico, long before they came to the U.S. A full decade passed between the launch of what was then called the city-coupe and the introduction of the two-passenger fortwo coupe and convertible on American soil.
In April 1994, a joint venture was established between Micro Compact Cars AG, founded by Mercedes-Benz, and SMH (the maker of Swatch watches). Daimler-Benz AG took over the Swatch Group's share in 1998. Later that year, the first city-coupes went on sale. The first city-coupe (original name) launched late in 1998. Diesel-powered versions and a cabrio (convertible) appeared in 2000.
Low-slung smart roadsters took the spotlight at the 2002 Paris Motor Show, but the stubby little fortwo was the model destined to gain a devoted following. Barely more than 8 feet long, the smart car used interchangeable body panels. That meant the fortwo could change color in an hour or so, not unlike the Swatch watches tied to the car's early life.
Late in 2004, smart cars came to Canada, following an appearance at Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto. All along, the "smart" company has chosen not to capitalize the first letter in its name.
Around 2005, the ZAP organization, known for producing electric vehicles, began to import first-generation fortwo coupes, converting them to American standards. ZAP intended to import 15,000 cars yearly, and strived to attract a sufficient number of dealers, but that project eventually fell through. Meanwhile, some 770,000 first-generation cars had been sold worldwide.
When smart fortwo models had their "official" introduction into the U.S. market, in 2008, they fell under the auspices of Mercedes-Benz. Marketing would be handled by the Penske Automotive Group, with Roger Penske as chairman. Interested parties were asked to put down a $99 deposit, before the cars became available early in 2008.
"Greatness is not a question of size," smart proclaimed about the fortwo, which was 106 inches long on a 73.5-inch wheelbase. The two-seater was billed as a "compact car that is big on comfort, agility, supply and ecology." To ease the concerns of prospective customers who wondered about the little car's safety, smart promoted its tridion safety cell of high-strength steel. Engineering of the engine/chassis, plus safety technology, stemmed from Mercedes-Benz.
As in the first generation, body panels were made of dent-resistant plastic. The rear-mounted 1-liter, three-cylinder engine made 70 horsepower. Sole transmission choice was a sequential automated five-speed manual with no clutch pedal. Some critics complained not only about possible safety issues, but about the harsh-shifting transmission.
Cabriolets had a fully automatic top, though side roof bars had to be removed manually. Coupe rear windows could open at the touch of a button. Quite spacious for two, the cars had four airbags and Electronic Stability Control. Leather trim was optional. The EPA estimated gas mileage at 33-mpg city/40-mpg highway using the new 2008 fuel-economy standard.
Manufactured in France, smart cars came in Pure or step-up Passion trim. Because there was nothing else like the fortwo on the market, the cars had no real competition. A top-end BRABUS model with a sport suspension joined the lineup in 2010, but soon disappeared. In 2011, smart offered an all-electric version to buyers in selected states, but only under a four-year lease.