Despite its U.S. introduction earlier this year, the ultra-hip high-mpg Smart ForTwo is still a rare sight on American streets. It’s not for lack of interest from American car shoppers wanting the Smart ForTwo’s unique blend of style, efficiency, and affordability. More than 30,000 customers have placed an order and left a refundable $99 deposit. Unfortunately, those customers have been left in the dark about when their cool cute car will arrive.

Daimler, the Mercedes-Benz Company behind the Smart, was apparently caught by surprise by the level of interest in the vehicle. Deiter Zetsche, Daimler CEO, said those 30,000 pre-orders already exceed the planned first-year of production for Smart.

Smart USA, a distribution subsidiary of Penske Automotive Group, opened about 70 dealership across the country. But even those dealerships are uncertain about when the pre-orders will be filled. Nick Farelle, an independent contractor for Penske, told the Herald Tribune, “It’s impossible to say when the cars will be available at this point. There’s a bottleneck now since people began reserving them in 2007.”

The wait for the Smart ForTwo is reminiscent of the backlog of customers for the second-generation Toyota Prius in 2004 and 2005. Like the Smart ForTwo, the Prius has an eye-catching design, tops the charts for fuel efficiency, and made its debut in a period of rapid fluctuations in gas prices.

As with the Prius during its hottest periods, customers are reportedly offering as much as $5,000 over the asking price to move to the head of the waiting line. The Smart ForTwo ranges in price from approximately $12,000 to $17,000. “I’ve been offered all kinds of stuff if I can get someone in a car right away,” said Phillip Thrapp, the sales administrator for Smart Center Sarasota. Company policy does not allow customers to pay more for speedier delivery.

Long waiting lines are practically built into Smart’s ordering process. Customers go online to compare colors and options, and place orders at www.smartusa.com or at a Smart dealership—commonly shared with a Mercedes-Benz dealership—using a store computer rather than relying on a salesperson to place the order. Dealerships do not maintain an inventory of vehicles.

Penske executive won’t say how many cars they expect to deliver in 2008, and many customers on the waiting list are upset by the lack of information from the company. One such customer posted her grievances on the discussion forum at smartcarofamerica.com, an independent website for Smart enthusiasts. “I’m disappointed in Smart for the way the order and delivery process is being handled. It’s frustrating as Hades.” She added, “In the process how many potential serious buyers are they turning off in the whole process?” Despite the long wait, new orders are currently being accepted on the Smart USA website.