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40,000 Want Smart Cars



Arkansans should be able to buy the popular Smart Fortwo by 2009, Roger Penske, chairman of Penske Corp., said Thursday. German automaker Daimler AG selected Penske Automotive Group, Penske’s division of auto dealerships, last year to be the exclusive distributor of its small, two-seat car in North America.

Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz unit has sold almost 1 million Smart cars in 36 countries, but they won’t be available in this country until early next year.

Today we have over 40, 000 people who have given us a reservation” over the Internet for the car, Penske told more than more than 1, 000 members of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting Thursday.

Penske was interviewed on stage by Scott Ford, chief executive officer of Alltel Corp. Alltel sponsors a car driven by Ryan Newman on Penske’s NASCAR racing team.

The Fortwo is 8 feet long, 5 feet high and 5 feet wide, Penske said. It gets 40 miles to a gallon of gasoline and will sell for about $ 15, 000, Penske said.

In an interview after the meeting, Penske said sales of the tiny car will begin first in large metropolitan markets next year and then expand to smaller markets such as Arkansas in 2009.

“We plan to make 70 dealers candidates [to sell the Smart car ],” Penske said.

The car may not be for everyone, however. “Smart is the fad du jour in the auto industry,” Jim Mateja wrote in a Chicago Tribune column this week. “Small size, novel looks, high mileage.”

But Mateja warns drivers that the car is 5 feet shorter than a Scion xB made by Toyota and 10 feet shorter than a Chevy Suburban. The Fortwo is so small that two could be parked bumper to bumper in one stall of a residential garage.

It weighs 1, 300 pounds less than a Honda Accord and has a maximum load of 2, 300 pounds with two passengers and luggage, Mateja wrote.

Only seven or eight of the Fortwo dealers are currently with Penske Automotive, Penske said. The remainder will be independent dealers, he said.

It isn’t likely that Penske’s Landers Automotive dealerships in Benton and Fayetteville will sell the car, Penske said.

United Auto Group, the predecessor of Penske Automotive Group, acquired the Landers dealerships in 1995 from Steve Landers and other members of his family. Steve Landers, who owns Landers Toyota in Little Rock, is no longer affiliated with the Penske Landers dealerships.

The purchase of the Landers dealerships for more than $ 40 million was a building block of the growth of United Auto Group, Penske said.

“There is no question as we grew our business in Benton and went into Fayetteville, with Steve’s leadership, it was real important to us,” Penske said. “On a retail auto side, they really gave us some momentum in this market and helped us move into Memphis and other markets.”

Ford asked Penske his opinion of the national economy.

“There is no question we’re seeing in the U. S. a slowdown by the consumer,” Penske said. “On the automotive side, we have seen somewhat of a slowdown in California. For the short cycle, it’s obvious consumers are under some duress.”

Penske’s truck-leasing business has experienced a decline.

And the subprime mortgage business is hurting banking, Penske said.
“I heard the other day that for every dollar of capital that is lost by a bank that is $ 10 it cannot lend,” Penske said.

Russ Harrington, outgoing chairman of the Little Rock chamber, said almost 3, 000 jobs have been created in the Little Rock-North Little Rock area in the past year.

More than $ 375 million in new capital investment has been made in the area this year, Harrington said. Two foreign manufacturers, Welspun Group of India and LM Glasfiber of Denmark, announced this year they will build plants in Little Rock. Together they will employ more than 1, 300, Harrington said. Elizabeth Small, president of PDC Cos., will be chairman of the chamber in 2008. Source Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. BY DAVID SMITH
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