Smart inching way toward worldwide sales

Just weeks from deciding whether to bring its tiny MCC Smart cars to the United States, DaimlerChrysler AG is priming the brand for exports.

This month, the Smart factory in Hambach, France, launched production of its first right-hand-drive model. The intention: To get serious about selling Smart in Japan and the United Kingdom.

Last year, Smart began offering its cars in those markets, but with their steering wheels on the wrong side - a mistake that doomed U.S. automakers in Japan for years.

Cumulative Smart sales through this year in both markets will be just 4,200 cars, according to a spokesman for the DaimlerChrysler venture, MCC Smart GmbH.

That sales picture should change, although the right-drive versions will not go on sale until early next year, company officials said last week at the Frankfurt auto show.

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler will decide by year end whether to try to sell the small cars in the United States.

When it launched Smart in 1997, the former Daimler-Benz AG said Smarts were intended only for the crowded cities and narrow streets of Europe, where parking spaces are scarce and two-seaters are more widely accepted.

But the incentive is there to push exports. While Smart sales are inching upward, its French factory remains far under capacity. The plant can produce 200,000 cars a year, but sales are expected to grow 10 percent this year to about 110,000.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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