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In lots of places other than the United States, there is a plucky little automobile for sale called the Swatch Mercedes ART car, or SMART car for short. It gets an impressive 69 miles per gallon (diesel), yet it has the get-up-and-go of an average compact car. It is available in most of Europe, Asia, Australia, and in Canada, but it has not been marketed in the United States yet because it is contrary to Mercedes-Benz’s high-priced luxury stance in the U.S..

At first glance, it looks like a glorified golf cart. It’s even Mini-er than the Mini, so small that two SMART cars can share one standard parking space. It also looks a bit unsafe considering that this tiny, 1,600 pound two-seater is meant to share the road with the likes of the 6,400 pound Hummer H2. But it’s not quite as deathtrappy as one might think.

The rear-mounted three-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine only produces about forty horsepower, however the car is so lightweight that those forty horses go a lot farther than one would think. But it’s certainly no race car; it takes just short of twenty seconds to accelerate to 100 kilometers per hour (about 62 miles per hour), and it has a maximum speed of about 85 miles per hour due to an electronic speed governor. It’s geared with a clutchless 6-speed manual gearbox.

It has high-end braking and stability control features to help it keep its footing, and a few nice little features such as a system to prevent the car from rolling back when starting on an uphill slope. The passenger compartment is protected by a reinforced steel cage which its engineers call the “walnut,” allowing the car’s exterior to absorb much of the energy of an impact. The cage holds up to some brutal punishment… for example, in one test the cage remained intact after impacting a 20 ton block of concrete at 70 MPH (see video link below). But it’s not perfect, it has many of the same impact-related problems as other smaller cars. In Europe’s five-star crash rating system, the SMART car weighs in at three stars.

In Canada, the base SMART coupe can be had for about $12,100, which is about $9000 less than a base-model Toyota Prius, and about 10 miles per gallon more efficient. But the Prius’ zero-to-sixty time of about 10.5 seconds will smoke a SMART car, and the Prius gets five stars on the same crash-test rating system that gave the SMART car three stars. As for looks, they’re both equally goofy in design, but in distinct ways.

Mercedes plans to bring SMART cars to the U.S. someday soon, so if you’re looking for an inexpensive ultra-fuel-efficient car that is reasonably safe, it may become the best option, as long as you don’t mind the fact that it’s gutless.

More information:
Video of SMART car hitting 20-ton concrete block at 70MPH
SMART car homepage