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If necessity really is the mother of invention, then surely the auto industry is on the verge of an era of blinding brilliance. Times are that bad. In July, when the price of a barrel of oil shot up to US $147, buyers in the United States dumped their gas guzzlers and lined up for that iconic hybrid, the Toyota Prius. And, astonishingly, by year's end they had bought 25 000 Smart ForTwo cars, two-seaters so small they make the Mini Cooper, with its lavish complement of four seats, look like a land yacht.