With the financial woes of automakers dominating news headlines daily, it’s hard to imagine that the launch of a new car could muster much excitement. At Woodbury University, though, there was tangible buzz when the Smart Car that Mercedes-Benz has manufactured for its Chinese market was unveiled Jan. 13 on the Burbank campus. The car recently made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show but found its way to Woodbury thanks to connections School of Business Dean Andre van Niekerk has with Mercedes. Van Niekerk has done luxury brand market research for carmakers for about 20 years, paving the way for Woodbury students to do market research for them as well. Accordingly, when van Niekerk asked Mercedes-Benz to bring the Smart Car to Woodbury rather than to one of its dealers for a post-auto show event, the company agreed. “They discussed the idea about a pre-launch of the Smart Car for China, and what they were basically interested in is how does the Smart Car fit into the category of a lifestyle vehicle?” van Niekerk explained. “So, what we decided to do is to put together a show at the School of Business that relates to fashion lifestyles, specifically the California lifestyle of outdoor living, sports, etc.” To this end, Woodbury students presented a crowd of Chinese journalists, Mercedes-Benz representatives and the greater Woodbury community with a fashion show which featured a “smart” theme, a fitting play on the word in this case, as it can also mean “stylish.” “It’s a very integrated concept,” van Niekerk said of the production. The Smart Car “doesn’t stand on its own feet. It’s related to a lifestyle.” During the show, fashions from the present through the 1920s were featured. The idea was to demonstrate the meanings of “smart” throughout the ages, not to mention the cultural contributions Mercedes-Benz has made over the years. In some instances, smart meant adopting a certain kind of awareness, such as concern for the environment. One of the Smart Car’s selling points is that it is small and fuel-efficient and therefore more environmentally friendly than the majority of cars on the market. “It’s a Mercedes product appealing to people who are ecology minded,” Woodbury’s assistant business school dean and marketing chair Karen Kaigler-Walker said of the Smart Car. Kaigler-Walker has researched women and fashion in China and has made repeated trips to the country since1989, sometimes taking Woodbury students along. She views the Smart Car as a fashion accessory of sorts. “It fits so well with a fashion look,” she said. Some women may buy the Smart Car as a second or third automobile simply to use for shopping jaunts, she suggested. “Some of the market research (indicates) it’s very popular with the young generation,” she added. “It’s also popular with young mothers, young housewives.” Although the car is positively tiny compared to some of the gas-guzzling vehicles available, the car’s capacity was highlighted when models dressed as surfers demonstrated that the vehicle is not too small to hold a surfboard. In addition to being shown as spacious but petite, the Smart Car was portrayed as elegant during the show. There were nods to the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn and Julia Roberts as “Pretty Woman.” During one segment of the production, a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like was even driven around for a bit in the vehicle. There was a display of the actress as well. “Woodbury University has a very close relationship with couturiers and fashion designers. One of the major fashion designers that provided a lot of clothes for Marilyn Monroe was on the faculty at Woodbury,” van Niekerk explained of this segment. During other portions of the fashion show, smart meant being health conscious. Models sported athletic wear, tossed volleyballs and pretended to shop for the organic fare offered at Whole Foods. Smart also meant being cutting edge, as shown during a portion of the fashion show featuring skateboarders in action. “It’s really for almost a new generation of people, not necessarily an age group,” Kaigler-Walker said of the Smart Car. “It’s more green, more sporty, more concerned with other people. It’s also very clean, very modern, post-modern in a way, uncluttered.” The Smart Car Mercedes-Benz has made for China is scheduled to go on the market in April. Kaigler-Walker hopes that the car is successful in a way that translates into recognition for Woodbury. “Our hope along the way is for Woodbury to be known as a university that deals in China, that understands the Chinese, that has several relationships with China, primarily in terms of image, cars and fashion,” she said.