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Remember back in 2008 when gas crested the $4-per-gallon mark? Remember the upheaval that ensued as people eschewed their large SUVs and trucks for compacts like the Smart Fortwo? Roger Penske certainly does; he cashed in as the owner of the Smart USA distributorship, selling almost 25,000 Fortwos in 2008. But since then, gas prices have dropped and Smart sales have fallen off a cliff, totaling 14,596 units in 2009 and just 4779 through September of this year. Now that gas is cheap and everyone who wanted one of the world's most expensive two-seat golf carts already has one, Penske needs a new product-the survival of Smart in the U.S. may depend on it. Enter the five-seat, five-door hatchback based on a Nissan platform that was announced today.

Hard details on the new Smart are very scarce, save for the mention that it will be a gas-powered, B-segment vehicle based on a global Nissan architecture. A Smart spokesman denied to us that this five-door will be a reworked Nissan Micra, although the greenhouse, door handles, and antenna placement are among the details seen in these sketches that certainly suggest otherwise. Powertrain specifics are on hold as well, but we were told the unnamed vehicle will offer both manual and automatic transmissions-we assume that means two separate transmissions, instead of a herky-jerky automated manual like the Fortwo's. Given the Micra's engine menu, we expect either a Smart-appropriate three-cylinder or a four-cylinder mill to motivate the five-seater.

The new Smart shown here manages to carry over a few styling cues from the Fortwo, including a similar front fascia and signature quad taillights. We think the illustrated car is attractive, but don't expect the production version to look anywhere as good; the giant wheels are likely to disappear, as are the wide stance and low-slung profile imparted by its squished proportions (see the Micra below for a better idea).

We're left wondering how the Nis-Smart will be positioned relative to the pricey-for-what-it-is Fortwo. That car starts at $12,635, which sits between Nissan's own larger Versa 1.6 sedan ($10,740) and the more-powerful Versa hatch ($14,270), so it seems like Smart USA will either have to price the new model on top of the Fortwo or command a higher total based solely on the car's Smart-ness. We also wonder what this means for the U.S. sales prospects of whichever Nissan lurks beneath the skin, but it's not looking good for a Nissan-badged version.

The new Smart will be sold exclusively in the U.S. market, as this project emanates from Smart USA and not Smart's Daimler home office, and is expected to arrive in dealerships near the end of 2011.
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