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The smart USA organization's new traveling road show, which allows consumers to see the car up close, also has logged 7,000 test drives since it first stop in Southern California in mid-May.

Dave Schembri, president of smartUSA, said the new sales organization expects to have three different road shows traveling around the U.S. by the beginning of July. The one on the West Coast has already been joined by a second tour in the middle of country and a third will soon begin touring on the East Coast to drum up interest in the tiny, two-seat smart.

Since the first tour began last month, more than 500 people per day have been lining up during each stop for a chance to drive the smart, a smart USA spokesman said.

Schembri added smartUSA also has collected $99 "reservations" from 20,000 customers interested in buying a smart vehicle. The reservations are refundable but the deposits have bolstered confidence in the sales appeal.

The official smart USA Internet site is now one year old and has drawn more than 1.7 million visits over the past 12 months, Schembri added.

Overall consumer reaction to the smart car has been just terrific, Schembri said in an interview this week.

Rising gas prices certainly have enhanced the appeal the car, which a lot of critics have suggested was too small to fit on an American road or to appeal to American consumers, who are enamored with large vehicles.

The smart, however, is winning the hearts of American drivers because it is a lot of fun to drive. "Americans love their cars," he said, and the smart's overall design and performance are appealing, Schembri said.

"You'll find it has slightly less legroom than the E-Class and more headroom than the E-Class," said Schembri, who spent 11 years at Mercedes-Benz during a career that also included stops at Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and the old American Motors Corp.

Over the years, smart has been marketed primarily in major European cities such as Paris and Rome and Hamburg, where the car's short wheelbase is useful because it makes it very easy to park, Schembri said. After years of internal debate, DaimlerChrysler AG-the maker of the smart-announced last year that it planned to launch sales of the smart in the U.S. in 2008.

Rather than distribute the car itself, however, Daimler outsourced the job of marketing and distributing the smart in the U.S. to Roger Penske's United Auto Group of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Penske has created the smart USA organization now headed by Schembri as part of UAG's effort to launch the sales of the small, two-seat car in the United States.

The updated two-seat model now destined for the U.S. market retains the basic design appeal of the original smart, which debuted in 1998, and will have a bit more room on the inside, Schembri added.

Schembri also said smart USA also putting the finishing touches on its list of dealers. Demand for the smart franchise has been very strong, he said.

However, Schembri said the smart dealership in suburban Detroit will also serve as the company's headquarters. "We have decided we will locate the headquarters here," he said.

Thus, he and his management team will "live over the store," said Schembri.

"I can't think of anything better than being able to walk in and talk to customers," Schembri said. "We're very excited."
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