BRUSSELS - The Smart city car offers 'a rational and emotional response to the challenges to mobility in Europe in the next century,' said Micro Compact Car AG President Lars Brorsen.
Smart car skeptics say the city car concept has two big potential weaknesses: safety and cost. Brorsen tackled the two issues head-on.
He cited several major safety measures that aim to bring safety levels up to large-car standards.
deformable wheels as part of the crumple zone
delayed seat belt operation
an unusually large passenger airbag
a steering column that moves forward out of the way of the driver on impact
deliberately making the car heavier than its small size would suggest.
Meanwhile, costs have been held down by using radical production processes at the Hambach, France, assembly plant.
The entry price will be around DM16,000 ($9,400) in Germany, despite a lower production volume than many of its small-car rivals, said Brorsen.
The key is modularization. Only a third of the workforce at Smart Ville - as Micro Compact Car calls its Hambach plant - work directly for the carmaker. The rest are employed by 'Smart Alliance Partners,' who supply fully pre-assembled modules to the assembly line.
The body shop, paint shop and even the computer systems are outsourced.
Smart Ville-based suppliers include Magna, Bosch, Eisenmann, Dynamit Nobel, Krupp-Hoesch, Ymos and VDO. Together these account for 50 percent of the purchasing volume.
Off-site system partners with their own delivery point on the assembly line account for a further 40 percent of the purchasing volume.
Brorsen said each Smart requires an assembly time of only 4.5 hours. That is little more than half the best achieved so far in Europe - Nissan's eight-hour Micra.
He described the production process in terms relevant to its target customers: young, city-living singles and couples.
Micro Compact Car takes over the car at the 'engagement stage' after the dashboard has been mounted by VDO.
At the 'wedding station' Micro Compact Car assembles the safety and drive modules in the body frame.
The next stage is the 'furniture store,' where panels, windows, trim, and seating systems are fitted. At the 'jewelry studio' Micro Compact Car adds interior decoration elements.
In the 'design shop' custom design features such as body panels are added.
Then the car goes through tests at the 'fitness studio.' Final checks are made in the 'quality studio' before delivery to the 'marketplace bistro.'
Production at Hambach will start no later than 27 October, when the plant will have its grand opening.
Hambach's capacity is 200,000 units a year. This will fall slightly when a more-complicated cabriolet version is built starting in 1999. The range will also be extended then with a diesel engine. Micro Compact Car is still considering building a right-hand-drive version.
The Smart will be launched with a three-cylinder, 55ps gasoline engine in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy in early 1998.
Critics of the city car concept say two seats are not enough.
But Brorsen said that because the Smart has two full-size seats, it offers greater comfort than traditional small cars. The passenger seat can take two children, with the airbag deactivated, he said.