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Smarts may be sold here wether DCX likes it or not


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Importers want to adapt Europe's Smart cars to comply with U.S. rules

By HARRY STOFFER | Automotive News

WASHINGTON - Americans may get to drive Europe's Smart cars sooner than expected - and earlier than DaimlerChrysler would like.

Two importers, in separate requests, have asked the federal government for permission to bring the two-seat versions of the Smart to the United States. DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, is moving ahead with plans to sell a new four-seat Smart SUV through its U.S. Mercedes-Benz network in 2006.

Smart coupes, cabrios and roadsters are made in Hambach, France, by a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler.

Fans of the cars rave about their fuel economy, maneuverability and quirky looks.

Each of the importers says it can adapt the cars to comply with U.S. environmental and safety standards.

"We don't believe it's going to be a long shot at all," says George Gemayel, owner of G&K Automotive Conversion Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., one of the importers.

G&K has crash-tested more than a dozen Smarts to document its safety claims, he says.

It is expecting EPA approval to sell the cars in 45 states, he adds.

Gemayel and his business partners believe they can sell 15,000 Smarts annually to Americans, he says.

They are not saying how or when the cars would be marketed.

DaimlerChrysler executives announced in September that they intend to bring a new four-seat Smart mini-SUV to the United States in 2006.

Scott Keogh, a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz USA Inc., says the company is not ready to announce its distribution plans.

He says Mercedes-Benz is concerned that two-seat Smarts not built for the U.S. market but altered by importers might not be "properly serviced or taken care of." He declined to say if the company is seeking to block the importers' requests.

J.K. Technologies LLC of Baltimore also has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to rule that Smart two-seaters are eligible for importation to the United States.

Lois Joyeusaz, an owner of J.K. Technologies, declined to comment, saying she doesn't want to jeopardize a "multimillion-dollar effort."

Both J.K. and G&K are involved in the business of federalizing cars from overseas, usually in small volumes.

It is not clear how G&K or J.K. would secure Smart cars for import. Typically, such importers obtain stocks of cars from independent distributors and dealers.

NHTSA frequently receives requests from importers who want to bring to the United States overseas versions of vehicles that are being sold here - such as the European versions of the Audi A4 or BMW Z8.

But getting approval for a vehicle such as Smart, which has no similar versions on sale in the United States, is a bigger challenge, says Coleman Sachs, chief of NHTSA's import and certification division. The agency is evaluating voluminous submissions from J.K. and G&K , he says.

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