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SURE, IT'S CUTE BUT IS IT SAFE TO DRIVE?

Under 9 feet long and 1,700 pounds, the Smart Fortwo microcar will have a hard time stacking up against beefier U.S. peers.

The tiny two-seat Smart car is a common sight on the congested streets of European capitals, something DaimlerChrysler AG is eager to duplicate in cities like New York and Los Angeles when it begins selling the vehicle in the United States next year.

But alongside the promise of fuel efficiency - the Smart Fortwo can get around 40 miles per gallon - and of parking in the narrowest of spaces, the automaker will have to convince American drivers braving roads filled with sport utility vehicles that the microcar is safe.

At just 8.8 feet long and slightly wider and taller than 5 feet, it is one of the smallest cars on any road in any country; it weighs around 1,700 pounds.

Compare that to a Ford Explorer, an SUV 6 feet high, more than 6 feet across and nearly 16 feet long, weighing 4,436 to 4,606 pounds, and it's not hard to see why safety might be a concern.

The company touts its safety package: a stiff "safety cell" frame, antilock brakes, side and knee air bags, and intelligent seatbelts that sense motion changes.

Still, in an accident, "the laws of physics can't be repealed," said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Even with modern safety features like multiple air bags, people in small, light cars are always at a disadvantage in crashes."

The Fortwo and its predecessors have not undergone crash testing in the U.S., according to records kept by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

That's because Smart has not sold its cars in American markets before - preferring to focus on Europe, where it has sold more than 750,000 models since the car hit the road in late 1998. Last year, Smart sold 102,700 cars worldwide, down from 124,300 in 2005.

But crash testing on the latest model hasn't been done in Europe, either. Christel Martin of the Euro NCAP, an agency that assesses cars sold in Europe, said it "is included in our testing program and the results should be available by the end of October."

A previous model, the Smart Fortwo City Coupe, was tested in 2000 and achieved a three-star rating out of five possible.

"Three stars is low," said Cordelia Wilson of Euro NCAP. "Most cars get four- or five-star safety ratings."

Ken Kettenbeil of Smart USA said U.S. tests are likely to be completed this year with the results released in the fall, and that the company expects a four-star crash rating.

The Smart Fortwo

The car, slightly bigger than the European version, with a three-cylinder, 700cc engine, is scheduled to hit the U.S. market in early 2008. The base model will be priced at about $12,000. An intermediate version is expected to start at $14,000 and will boast air conditioning, alloy wheels and a panorama roof. A Cabriolet version will start at around $17,000 and feature an upgraded sound system with MP3 capability and a six-disc CD changer. Sales and service will be handled by United Auto Group Inc., with the first dealerships to be announced this year.

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