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Smart's running start

Tiny auto debuts locally as official car of marathon

It's so small that two of them fit in a single parking space. It gets nearly 60 miles per gallon, and it's being unveiled today as the official car of the Boston Marathon.

The catch: You can't buy it in the United States.

Over the next week, a fleet of 13 European smart cars will blitz Boston, appearing at Red Sox and Celtics games, cruising city streets, and leading a pack of more than 20,000 runners competing in Monday's marathon.

But why blitz the city with a car Bostonians can't buy?

"It's a car that has never existed in America before," said Scott Keogh, general manager of smart USA, a division of Mercedes-Benz USA and DaimlerChrysler. "So the first thing you need to do is raise awareness so people know the vehicle exists."

Smart is part of a growing group of automakers looking for new ways to create buzz about their cars. Toyota Motor Sales USA sent scores of college students into New York's Times Square last week with temporary tattoos on their foreheads advertising its latest Scion model. Mini USA, the maker of the Mini Cooper, paid for a starring role in the movie "The Italian Job."

For smart, that means marathons. The cars made their US debut at the New York marathon in November. Boston will be their second major US road trip. The marketing campaign for its tiny two-seater comes a full two years before a US version is available. And when smart does come stateside, it will make its debut with a larger version of the European coupe. Americans will get the formore SUV, with four doors, four seats, all-wheel drive, and even a bit of trunk space.

For now, Bostonians will get a firsthand look at smart's two-door coupes, some with sunroofs and receding tops, as they serve as pace cars for the marathon. The fleet has been gussied up with the logo of the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon, smart's Web address, and a message on their rear bumpers that reads: "Faster through the City."

The cars are not like any on the US market. They're about 3 feet shorter than the Mini Cooper and one of the most fuel-efficient cars. The bubble-shaped compacts come in various combinations of yellow, black, lime, silver, and blue, including a yellow-and-black checkerboard pattern.

The idea for the car was born of a partnership between Swiss watchmaker Swatch AG and Mercedes. As a result, the "s" in smart stands for Swatch, the "m" for Mercedes, and the "art" for art. The car is the only auto still in production that has a place in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Smart sold 122,000 cars last year in Europe, up from 20,000 cars in 1998. That number is expected to grow to 180,000 this year. The average age of the smart driver in Europe is 37 -- young by auto industry standards. But smart's Keogh said the company isn't targeting any specific demographic.

"It's more about a frame of mind, a point of view that is youthful, energetic, and passionate," Keogh said. "That's really the market we're going after."

Neither smart nor the athletic association will say how much the automaker paid for its marathon privileges. But the deal lasts for three years, keeping alive the chance that Bostonians may get an early peek at the bigger US model before its 2006 launch. "It's a lot of great visibility to introduce a car," said Guy Morse, the BAA's executive director.

Half a million spectators are expected to be on the sidelines and at the finish line. More than 1,100 members of the media will be on hand. The event is broadcast live on two local networks and ESPN2, and airs in about 180 countries worldwide. A brand so new and so different probably needs two years of advance marketing.

"The cooler the car, the more you have a right to talk about it before it comes out," said Lance Jensen, creative director at Boston ad firm Modernista, who has worked on ad campaigns to launch the Volkswagen Beetle and the Hummer H2.

Smart cars have made appearances at marathons from Amsterdam to Tokyo. But advertising professionals quickly point out that marketing a car around a marathon isn't necessarily new. Past official cars of the marathon include: Mercedes and Dodge, which like smart are also divisions of DaimlerChrysler. Ultimately, however, it's the car -- not the marketing -- that makes a particular model stand apart.

Mini spent less on TV, but its advertising tactics ran the traditional gamut from billboards to magazines to paid appearances in movies. The Beetle's and the H2's introduction also generated buzz -- not because Volkswagen and Hummer broke the advertising mold but because the cars broke the mold. Jensen believes smart falls into the same category -- and that means people will either love it or hate it.

"The cars that stick in your mind aren't the ones that launch well, but the ones that resonate with people," Jensen said. "They're cars that don't try to appeal to everybody."

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com.

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How smart cars compare to the typical SUV.
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