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Tuesday, July 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dealer is looking Smart

Seattle Times business reporter

DaimlerChrysler announced last week that U.S. consumers will finally get its tiny Smart car in 2008, but a car dealer in Kirkland that got smart a long time ago already has sold 80 of them since February.

Green Car, one of the largest dealers of Smart cars in the United States, imports them from Europe through a distributor and has them modified to fit U.S. specifications. The company has sold them to customers in six states, said Service Manager Susan Fahnestock.

That's not all.

Fahnestock says her company is out to reinvent the car dealership the way REI changed the sporting-goods store and Whole Foods remade the supermarket.

She calls the company she founded with partners Don Fahnestock, her husband; and Greg Rock an "eco-friendly" car dealership, or the "anti-dealer."

Green Car has a showroom and a staff of eight, but no one works on commission. Instead of focusing on selling inventory, they work on matching a customer to the right car, based on driving habits.

"The main mission is to educate consumers about how their vehicle choices are affecting the environment, especially with regard to global warming," Fahnestock said.

The company, which grew out of a Volvo repair shop the Fahnestocks had for 10 years in Kirkland, also sells electric cars and converts gas vehicles to run on alternative fuels like biodiesel. In the future, it plans to add an ethanol fuel station and sell cars that run on ethanol.

The company took a do-it-yourself approach to the market: It didn't find enough family-size cars that run on diesel, so it decided to make their own.

It buys used Volvo 240 wagons and restores them to almost new condition with imported engines, tires, brakes and other parts. After the restoration, the square-bodied car "runs like a tank" on biodiesel or straight vegetable oil, getting 30 to 35 miles per gallon, Fahnestock said.

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Besides that, the company is working with partners around the world to import the most fuel efficient and least polluting cars available, though shipping and modification often add a hefty cost.

"We're trying to find the most eco-friendly cars we can and introduce them to Americans," Fahnestock said.

The folks at Green Car are looking at "microcars" like the Ford Ka, which gets up to 50 mpg, and Volkswagen Lupo, which gets up to 80 mpg running diesel. They're also interested in cars from Brazillian maker Obvio! that can run on ethanol or gas, or a mixture of both.

Green Car obtains Smart cars through ZAP, a Santa Rosa, Calif., company that distributes the vehicles. About 200 Smarts have been sold in the United States, ZAP said.

To get the cars licensed under U.S. standards, headlights must be changed and paneling and oxygen sensors added. Green Car works with G&K Conversions in Irvine, Calif., to do this.

The shipping and modifications add about $8,000 to the price tag, which ranges from $26,900 for a hard-top to $29,900 for a convertible. Customers can customize the color for $1,000 more.

Even so, the cars have proved to be a hit for their novel appearance and fuel efficiency. They have an EPA rating of 40 mpg, among the highest of any non-hybrid car in the world.

Customers are mostly businesses buying them for marketing and "baby boomers who saw the car in Europe, fell in love with it and want to be ahead of the curve," Fahnestock said.

Thomas Koll, chief executive of Laplink Software in Bellevue, purchased a Smart car recently for his company's marketing efforts. He bought the car in Canada and drives it back and forth from Laplink's Vancouver, B.C., office.

Koll had seen the cars for years in Europe, where they were first introduced in 1998. The car was made to squeeze into the tiny haphazard parking spaces of Europe's crowded cities.

Whether it catches fire here remains to be seen, but "it's a very fun car," Koll said, adding that the biggest surprise was fitting his 6-foot-2 frame comfortably into it.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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