Transcriptional regulation of smooth muscle cell (SMC) differentiation is a rapidly growing area of interest that has relevance for understanding intimal disease. Despite the wealth of data accumulating in vitro, however, no study has compared the cell-specific marker profile, transfectability, promoter activity, and growth characteristics among several SMC culture systems. Accordingly, we performed a comprehensive analysis of the marker profile, growth properties, transfectability, and SMC promoter activity in four rat SMC lines (A7r5, adult and pup aortic, and PAC1). Despite alterations in chromosomal number and structure, A7r5, adult aortic, and PAC1 cells express all SMC markers studied including SM alpha-actin, SM calponin, SM22, tropoelastin, and to a lesser extent, SM myosin heavy chain (SMMHC). In contrast, pup aortic cells express very low or undetectable levels of all the above markers except tropoelastin. Adult aortic, pup, and PAC1 cells display similar growth curves and levels of proto-oncogene transcripts, whereas those in the A7r5 line are comparatively less. All cell lines studied except pup cells show expression of SMC differentiation genes during active growth, indicating that growth and differentiation are not mutually exclusive in cultured smooth muscle. Transfection studies reveal dramatic differences in DNA uptake and SMC-restricted promoter activity between cell lines. Collectively, these results provide detailed information relating to SMC molecular biology in culture that should facilitate the selection of a cell line for studying the transcriptional regulatory mechanisms underlying SMC differentiation.