TO COUNTER negative reviews in the press, some Smart dealers are letting potential customers drive the car at special marketing clinics before the official start date of Thursday 1 October.
Micro Compact Car admits it will improve the car's ride and handling in two or three years, but executives are confident sales will go well.
'First-hour buyers seemed so well informed about Smart that they ordered one without test driving it,' said Sidney Mock, sales manager for Dutch Smart centers in Amsterdam and Utrecht. 'But they were more or less the freaks. If they ask questions following critical press reports, we offer them a test drive before signing.'
Newspaper and magazine writers are generally critical of the Smart's ride and handling.
Engineers faced a dilemma. If the car rides better, it is more prone to instability in the quick lane change driving test.
'The stiff suspension and understeering resulted from the modifications we made to meet the moose test,' said one engineer. 'Now it complies with the moose test procedure even better than the Mercedes A-class.'
Lars Brorsen, president of Micro Compact Car, admitted during the Smart's unveiling two months ago that the car is not yet perfect.
'It should not be like that, so we will modify these things,' he said. He didn't say when. Spokesman Wolfgang Riecke in Renningen, Germany, said technical modifications 'will be put into the first facelifted version in the next two to three years.'
Riecke insisted potential customers had no complaints about the stiff suspension.
'Journalists who compare Smart with other cars might have noticed it, but in city traffic it does not seem to be an issue for customers.'
At the Smart centers, dealers have met with enthusiasm. They have been taking orders since 10 July.
Normal test drives start 1 October, but some early customers were invited by dealers to attend the Smart's marketing research clinics, where they were allowed to drive the car.
The customers accept the stiff suspension and slow gear changes, salesmen say. The four Dutch Smart centers have 350 firm orders to date. Total 1999 Dutch sales are forecasted at 5,000.
Interest in Smart is highest in densely populated urban areas.
Annette Bruggemann, marketing and PR manager of all three Berlin Smart centers, says that Berlin customers consider the Smart a pure city car. 'With 4.1 million inhabitants, Berlin is the right area to sell the car. The two-seat concept is accepted easily for this reason,' she said. Bruggemann has 330 firm orders, and she forecasts 2,500 Smart sales next year.
Smart expects to sell 5,000 cars at five Paris dealerships and another 5,000 at 11 dealerships in smaller French cities. Philippe Gay, manager of the Smart center in Nantes, in southwestern France, expects sales of 520 cars.
The market is well aware of the Smart's pending arrival. The tall glass towers full of Smart cars have acted as lighthouses for the 110 European dealers since early summer.
The Smart factory in Hambach, France, held an open house earlier this month, which attracted 110,000 visitors from France and Germany. Some got to sit in cars, but road tests were not allowed.
Enthusiasm for Smart is obvious in the field, but it is not universal in financial circles.
At the Daimler-Benz annual meeting, a shareholder quipped: 'If it is your intention to become more profitable after the merger with Chrysler, you better put the Smart in the Hayek Museum.'
Nicholas Hayek, the chairman of Swiss watchmaker SMH, is the father of the Smart. He searched for an automaker partner for his small, cheap, clean city car.
After Volkswagen rejected the idea, he partnered with Daimler-Benz, and he remains a 19 percent partner in Micro Compact Car.
The first Smart is not as clean or cheap as Hayek envisioned, and he has 50 of his own engineers in SMH Automobile working independently on a clean hybrid drive.
Juergen Hubbert, Daimler's board member for passenger cars, said in an interview that there should be no doubt about the Smart's future success.
'Despite criticism, we have nearly 400,000 addresses of potential buyers, and we have 10,000 orders to date,' he said. Smart's target is an annual volume of 180,000 to 200,000 in the year 2000.
London-based analysts DRI/McGraw-Hill are much more conservative.
Some time ago they forecast a maximum of 130,000 annual sales, 'but we have adjusted that figure,' said Philippe Rosengarten, a DRI analyst. 'Now we expect Smart sales to peak at 107,000 in 2001.'
Alexander van het Groenewoud, regional network sales manager for the Benelux countries, admits that some of the criticism and the restrictions of the two-seat concept, have a polarizing effect on the Smart's image. 'But that is what you can expect when you come up with something totally new.'
Stephane Farhi in Paris contributed to this report