A new car is coming to town, and it is smaller than anything on the road.
The two-seater smart fortwo is 104 inches long, half the size of a typical SUV. It zips along up to 90 mph, and parallel parking is a no-brainer.
In Europe, where gas can top $6 a gallon, the fortwos have been popular for the past decade. But will the car -- so small its official spelling uses the diminutive lower case -- find buyers here?
About 12,000 people across the country already have put down $99 refundable deposits. The basic Pure goes for $12,000, the Passion starts at $14,000 and the Cabrio is $17,000.
At a recent test-drive session in North Hollywood, dozens of people lined up to take the tiny cars for a spin around the block, including Art Bjornestad.
He plans to add a smart fortwo to his fleet of six cars to poke around Westlake Village, where he lives. For longer trips he uses his Prius or his motor home.
"I just like small cars," Bjornestad said while waiting his turn. "I can get more of them in my garage."
The car was originally designed to carry two people and a case of beer, legend has it. But it is actually a lot bigger -- two cases fit easily. Many testers said it was roomier than they expected, but do not try fitting golf clubs in the trunk.
The car has two modes, automatic and stick. In manual, drivers can click a paddle tucked behind the steering wheel with
To keep occupants safe, the fortwo relies on a reinforced steel cage, four air bags and anti-lock brakes.
But Rayder Woods was not convinced.
"It's risky," he said while waiting to drive one. "But the flip side is being able to commute quickly."
According to importing guidelines, the car will not be tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before it goes on sale here. Instead, Mercedes-Benz, the manufacturer, is responsible for making sure it is up to snuff.
Part of the reason the fortwo has not been available before now is that the maker had to retool it to meet American standards. The debut also was tied to attitudes about small cars.
"Ten years ago, SUVs were king of the road, and gas prices were a lot lower," said Ken Kettenbeil, spokesman for smart USA. "American thinking was bigger is best."
Now, sales of small cars are up 8 percent this year, an impressive increase compared with the 1 percent drop in sales of sport utility vehicles and trucks, said Tina Jantzi, a top forecaster for J.D. Power and Associates.
Downsizing "is a definite change in consumer buying habits that we are going to continue to see," she said.
As gas prices continue to rise, drivers are warming up to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. The smart fortwo gets 40 miles per gallon, said Ken Crossman, who applied to be an official smart dealer.
If he gets the nod next month, Crossman will set up on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. He hopes to sell from 300 to 500 smart fortwos in the first year.
But the cars will not catch on until gas prices become more than an inconvenience, one analyst said.
"If we had high gas prices for long enough, you would see that sea change," said Kevin Tynan of Argus Research Corp. "It would probably take the better part of a decade to do it."
Reach Julia Scott of the Los Angeles Daily News at firstname.lastname@example.org or 818-713-3735.