Small car, big impact
Mercedes-Benz's Smart car makes its Hawaii debut at a new Honolulu dealership. The tiny cars get 50 mpg -- but prices start at $27,995
Bill Stoutley sees them all day long -- curious passersby who stop to take a look at his cars, lined up on a small parking lot in Kakaako.
Some pull U-turns when they drive by. The more curious walk up, wander through the lot and ask a few questions.
SMART CAR SPECS
Dimensions: 8 feet 2 inches long, 5 feet wide (excluding mirrors), 5 feet 1 inch tall
Mileage: 50 miles per gallon, combined city/highway
Speed: Up to 90 mph
Price: $27,995 for a fully loaded coupe; $29,995 for a fully loaded convertible
Storage: 8 cubic feet on U.S. models
Sales and repair location: 831 Queen St.
Stoutley loves the attention -- that's part of his sell. And his tiny Smart cars, the first to be sold in Hawaii, are drawing plenty.
"If you do not want attention, you do not want this car," he said. "If you drive through Waikiki beach at an average speed of 20-30 miles per hour and sold neck braces, you'd be a millionaire."
The Smart cars, known for their rounded shape and tiny stature, were made popular in the metro areas of Europe, where narrow streets and limited parking helped boost worldwide sales to 800,000 since their debut nine years ago.
They aren't scheduled to officially hit the U.S. until early next year, but importers are already shipping the cars from Europe to conversion shops, which tailor them to U.S. safety and environmental standards.
Stoutley, at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, has no problem fitting into the car, and even moves up the seat when he drives his to work.
He's been selling the cars through a dealership in Nevada for the past year and opened a shop in Hawaii a few weeks ago with 10 cars under the name Green Machine Inc. He said he saw a robust market in Hawaii after showing the cars outside the First Hawaiian Auto Show in March. Stoutley and a partner plan to open a rental location in Waikiki in several weeks along with another sales dealership this summer in Hawaii Kai or Kahala.
"We thought that Hawaii would be the perfect place because of the traffic situation that they have here, and the parking is not the best," he said. Two Smart cars can fit into one standard parking spot.
Smart stands for Swatch Mercedes ART, after the Swiss watchmaker who shaped the design of the car, and Mercedes-Benz, which manufactures it.
The Mercedes engineering ensures the safety of the car, a common concern for perspective drivers, Stoutley said. It is secured by a steel frame, which Smart likens to a nut protected by a hard outside shell, helping to dissipate the force of an impact. Side barriers are also built into each door, along with driver and passenger front and side airbags.
All of Stoutley's cars go through G&K Automotive Conversion Inc. in California before hitting Hawaii.
"It's a pretty extensive conversion," he said. "It now meets all the American requirements. There's a lot of talk that it's a gray-area car -- No. This is a safe, unbelievable car."
John Browning, Stoutley's first Hawaii customer, ordered his first Smart car eight months ago, after stumbling on the Nevada dealership while on vacation. He drove the car in Italy three years ago.
"I fell in love with it, and I thought, 'God we need these for Hawaii,'" he said. He said he is so enthusiastic about the car that he is helping host a private launch celebration for the car in Hawaii Kai tomorrow.
Browning has since bought another Smart car -- a silver convertible -- for his wife and plans to purchase a third.
"The state didn't know what it was," he said. "I literally had somewhere around 45 pages of paper work to show that it was an actual approved U.S. vehicle before the state would register it."
At between $27,995 for a fully loaded coupe to $29,995 for a fully loaded convertible in Hawaii, these cars top price ranges for many mid-sized cars. Stoutley said shipping and conversion costs contribute to the nearly double mark-up from European pricing. Most U.S. customers are collectors and people who drove the car in Europe, he said. He has sold three Smarts in Hawaii so far, without revealing sales goals: "I'm on Hawaiian time," he said.
Smart USA, a wholly owned subsidiary of UnitedAuto Group, will start selling a U.S. version of the car in 2008, ranging from just less than $12,000 for the entry-level coupe to $17,000 for a well-equipped convertible. The U.S. version of the car will be roughly 6 to 8 inches longer that the European version and have slight modifications in lighting and the gear shift, said Ken Kettenbeil, a spokesman for Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Smart USA.
Kettenbeil said the company doesn't plan to open a Honolulu location in its initial roll-out of 50 to 75 official Smart car dealers in early 2008. However, a local dealership could be added by late 2008 or early 2009, he said. The car has drawn response from all 50 states in its $99 online reservation program, he said, with "noticeable interest" from Hawaii. The company expects strong sales along the West Coast, Texas, Florida and large metro areas in the Midwest.