Carlos Ramirez has owned some classic cars, like a '57 Thunderbird or a '34 Ford Coupe with a rumble seat, but his current obsession might...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Carlos Ramirez has owned some classic cars, like a ’57 Thunderbird or a ’34 Ford Coupe with a rumble seat, but his current obsession might be his favorite.

“I wouldn’t accept a Ferrari if somebody said, ‘Let’s trade,’ ” Ramirez said.

His pride and joy, imported from Europe to Mexico and now at his Campbell, Calif., home, is a Smart Fortwo. The tiny two-seater goes on sale in the U.S. early next year.

Praise comes from international travelers who have seen or driven the miniature cars — two fit in an average parking space. They have been on sale in Europe since 1998, in Mexico since 2003 and in Canada since 2004. Smarts are now sold in 36 countries, and the company says it has sold 750,000 in the past decade.

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Officials with Smart, a unit of DaimlerChrysler’s Mercedes-Benz, have hesitated to bring the car here — until now.

“It’s the right car in the right place at the right time,” said Smart USA President Dave Schembri. Here’s his reasoning:

• Superior fuel economy — projected at more than 40 mpg — makes it a natural during these times of high gas prices.

Smart Fortwo

Base price: $12,000

Dimensions: 8.8 feet long, 5.1 feet tall, 5.1 feet wide and weighs 1,653 to 1,808 pounds, depending on the model

Mileage: Projected at more than 40 mpg

Top speed: 90 mph

San Jose Mercury News

• Small size makes it a good fit in crowded urban environments.

• Low price — from $12,000 to $17,000 — makes it trendy at a time when a revival of small cars such as Honda’s Fit, Nissan’s Versa and Toyota’s Yaris are finding U.S. buyers.

Smart needed a different distribution model, Schembri said, so the company picked Roger Penske’s UnitedAuto Group to be the distributor. The company will announce its U.S. dealers, perhaps 50 to 75, next month. Many, but not all, Smart dealers also will be Mercedes-Benz dealers, Schembri said. “Probably over half,” he said.

Although it sells other variants elsewhere in the world, Smart will come to the United States with just one model, the two-seat Fortwo.

It’ll be sold as a base two-door called the Fortwo Pure for about $12,000; as a better-equipped coupe, the Fortwo Passion, for about $14,000; and as a two-door convertible, the Fortwo Passion Cabrio, for about $17,000.

All models will get a 71-horsepower, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine mated with a five-speed automated manual transmission. The Fortwo has a top speed of 90 mph, Smart says.

Many consumers will question the safety of such a small car. Schembri said the entire chassis serves as a safety cage, something Smart calls the Tridion safety cell with high-strength steel.

The Fortwo meets U.S. crash-test regulations and comes standard with four air bags, antilock brakes and electronic stability control.

Ramirez, a retired businessman who worked at the Mexican consulate in San Jose for many years, has dual citizenship that allowed him to bring his Mexican-registered, two-tone Smart Fortwo Passion model to California.

It arrived about a month ago and has about 600 miles on its odometer.

“Believe me, this is the car of the future,” Ramirez said. “I love the environment. I love nature. That’s the real reason I wanted this car.”

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