By on July 11, 2011

[Editor's note: The video above depicts a Penske-era Smart ad. The new Mercedes-led marketing effort begins this fall]

Having taken over sales and distribution of the Smart brand from Penske and canceled a planned Nissan Micra rebadge, Mercedes is trying to inject some life into its flagging city car brand (Sales are down 24% YTD, at 2,556 units) with a new marketing campaign (coming this fall) and finance offers. Smart’s new General Manager Tracey Matura explains the problem to Automotive News [sub], saying

People are not avoiding the brand or the product, but there is a great majority of people who are not aware of the brand

Really? People don’t know or notice a brand that’s in its fourth year of US sales, offering a car that’s unlike any other on the market? It seems to me that the problem isn’t awareness, as the term “Smart Car” is almost universally synonymous with “hilariously tiny car,” even among non-expert consumers. The problem seems more precisely to be that Smart is neither as cheap nor as efficient as larger rivals, and American consumers are constitutionally resistant to the idea of paying more for less (a point that VW seems to be proving in spades). More promising: $179/month lease and finance deals backed by Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, not to mention the decision to ditch the snottier-than-thou Penske campaign embedded above. But even new ads and good deals aren’t likely to make Smart a truly viable brand in the US until new product arrives in 2014, hopefully in a more efficient, enjoyable-to-drive form. Or unless gas prices spike again, causing a 2008-style rush for conspicuously downsized vehicles.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

72 Comments on “Mercedes Tries To Jump-Start Stranded Smart Sales...”


  • avatar

    37 MPG combined…only on PREMIUM GAS?!?!

    I don’t see this matchbox-sized car as any sort of a valid alternative to any of the efficient alternatives offered by other manufacturers that run on regular gas.

    The only advantage the “SMART CAR” has is for people who are deathly afraid of parallel parking.

  • avatar
    lostjr

    There are a lot of these in San Francisco, but it is all about the parking. They can take street parking spaces that no other car can. I suspect this is not a big issue for most of the rest of the US.

  • avatar

    I’ve always wondered if they were going for irony in naming it “smart”. Ugly one trick pony vehicles that make sense only to childless people for whom a Prius no longer satisfies the smug quotient. They are ugly, not particularly versatile, and frankly don’t get that good gas mileage considering what they are.

    • 0 avatar
      th009

      Consider that the Smart was first launched in 1998 — where was the Prius then?

      However, it appears that Daimler hasn’t exactly bet the bank by investing heavily in Smart development since then. The original hybrid concept pushed by Nicolas Hayek back in the mis-1990s was vetoed by Daimler, although the plug-in electric version is due out in 2012. (With a 68-mile range it should fit well into the typical Smart owner’s driving pattern.)

  • avatar
    MrBostn

    $19/month lease? really.

    I’d humble myself and take one to drive my 5 miles to the office.(with $0 down of course)

  • avatar
    GS650G

    I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of these, not even as a passenger.
    Let’s see marketing overcome that reaction.

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      I parked next to a blue one in the Wal-Mart parking lot the other day and looked down from my Tundra perch and saw the hiked-up skirt and bare legs of a nice-looking forty-ish lady. A real money shot. Great view. Had to sit there awhile watching her get out of her little car. I have no doubt that these little cars are great for the ‘burbs and the big cities, but they look out of place in the wide-open spaces of the Southwest. I can’t see them widely accepted in America, no matter how much of a marketing and ad push Mercedes puts behind them.

      • 0 avatar
        HoldenSSVSE

        You could get one for the Tundra. Put it in the bed. You know, your dingy you could drive the asiles of Wal-Mart in.

      • 0 avatar
        highdesertcat

        In my area we have a very large contingent of German AF in flight training, and further south in El Paso, the German Army has their Missile Battery training.

        So we have a wide variety of Euro cars that we Yanks get to ogle that are brought here by them for their stay. When these people come here for training they are usually here for a period of at least 3 years, but their civil servants are here for a minimum of five years. So they integrate into the communities.

        They are authorized to bring their Euro cars with them and ship them ahead to Bayonne, NJ. Can you imagine driving from Bayonne, NJ, to El Paso, TX, in one of these, without air conditioning?

      • 0 avatar
        Rick T.

        “You could get one for the Tundra. Put it in the bed. You know, your dingy you could drive the asiles of Wal-Mart in.”

        Clarkson proved this theoretically possible a few years back:

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Isn’t Smart the one car company with inventory older than Saab’s? I think one of the important problems with the Smart is that it is a failure as an automobile. The transmissions is as bad as that in a Ford Focus, and the engine is a crummy Mitsubishi unit that isn’t efficient, smooth, or powerful. The handling is crippled to keep the car from rolling over, preventing it from going around corners in the process. Even if it didn’t look silly, the car would be a tough sell because it is one of the worst cars on the market.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    I thought the Smart was kind of cool when I first saw them in Europe, but they make no sense for the vast majority of American drivers. The ad is just too smug. But watch the video that follows it, for Smart body kits. If I had money to burn, there would be a Smart Ferrari in my driveway.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    I wonder if it is in a similar lifeboat as that of Maybach.

    Full disclosure: I own a 2004 Smart Brabus and I (mostly) like it (but I live in Europe).

  • avatar
    MrBostn

    The ad shows the earth crying-

    IMHO it’s crying beacuse of the 7 billion people we’re about have.

    • 0 avatar
      SunnyvaleCA

      The SMART is a doubly-effective form of birth control: women run away when they hear you have one and, for the few women who don’t know what a SMART is, there’s no back seat.

      Seriously, though, if cities reworked their parking these cars could be popular. The problem I see is that many of the curbsides that are only 10 feet long are marked as no-parking zones. Also, SMARTs should be allowed to park 2-per-space if the spaces are long enough… maybe if they parked perpendicularly?

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Why doesn’t this thing get at least 50mpg? Ridiculous.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Aerodynamics. A car that size would have to be significantly longer and lower to minimize wind resistance at highways speeds (i.e the first Insight). To keep the length down as much as possible, the smart has a very blunt nose and a sharp cutoff at the rear, both of which are bad for aero. Even so, it still gets better mileage than anything sold in the US except the standard Prius.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      In the city it’s quite hard to beat a Smart’s mileage without hybrid power.

      On the highway it’s quite hard to get 50mpg in something with this much frontal area. You’d have to redesign it significantly, compromising so much of what makes is a good city car. You’d also need very different gearing.

    • 0 avatar
      ott

      Agreed. I’ll take a mid-nineties Firefly or Metro please. That at least was a car you could drive without other drivers nudging their passengers while pointing at you and snickering. Didn’t that car get as-near-as-makes-no-difference to 50mpg (old numbers?) what would that equate to in the new world order? I bet it’s better than the Smart!

      • 0 avatar
        philadlj

        According to C/D, the ’98 3-cylinder Chevy Metro would be rated (by current EPA standards) as 36 city/44 highway. Hypermiling would get you over 50. They tested it vs. a Prius and an Insight.

        http://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/comparisons/09q3/2010_honda_insight_vs._2010_toyota_prius_1998_chevy_metro-comparison_tests

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        I don’t want to be seen as defending the Smart because it really is a huge failure of product planning and the new one’s transmission is pretty bad, but it’s not:
        * Unsafe, at least compared to the Miata, Fit, Yaris or suchlike. A Metro/Sprint has the crashworthiness of a popcan.
        * Overly unpleasant to drive. It’s a nice little rear driver and, with a less witless tranny, is kinda fun. The CDI version we got in Canada before it was refreshed and replaced with the gas version the US gets was not a bad car.

        What it is is too expensive. At half it’s MSRP it could work. The problem is one that a lot of alt-vehicle marketing suffers: they don’t understand (or are too arrogant to admit) that if you’re going to ask people to seriously compromise space or performance, you (the manufacturer) must compromise on price.

        It will be interesting to see how the iQ does: it asks less of a compromise, costs much less, and isn’t made or sold by one of the most arrogant companies in any industry.

      • 0 avatar
        Roundel

        I get the same mileage as the Metro from my smart, and in turn don’t cheat death everyday, as well as have creature comforts, like A/C, a radio and seats way more comfortable then a park bench.

  • avatar
    yesthatsteve

    If I didn’t need a back seat, this car wouldn’t even make my short list. Since I do need a back seat, it receives zero consideration.

    2-seater = Miata FTW!

  • avatar
    aristurtle

    I’m trying to figure out how a Smart is a better idea than an entry-level motorcycle.

    Cargo and passenger space? Both have two seats and room for one (perhaps two) take-out lunch specials. Tie.

    Safety? Ha. When some drunken jackass in an F-350 runs a red light into you, you are equally screwed either way. (And don’t tell me an ATGATT motorcyclist looks more ridiculous than someone driving a Smart. Nobody, nobody looks more ridiculous than someone driving a Smart.)

    Parking? Easier on the bike.

    Gas mileage? My bike gets a solid 50, this thing gets thirty-odd.

    Fun to drive? The only time I’ve heard those three words in conjunction with a Smart was that one that some guy dropped a ‘Busa engine into.

    So, yeah, you’re paying ten times the cost for something less practical than a motorcycle. It takes a lot of work for something to be less practical than a motorcycle. That’s a high bar of impracticality.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Anyone can drive a Smart once they’ve been behind the wheel of a normal car and you don’t need to spend hundreds on special clothing if you want to avoid getting seriously exfoliated.

      Oh, and you can drive one in winter, in the rain, and/or on a highway without fearing for your life, or at least fearing for your life any more than normal.

      • 0 avatar
        MrBostn

        I see plenty of motorcycle riders in sneakers/shorts/wife beater/minimalist helmet.

        Add flip flops to some scooter drivers.

      • 0 avatar
        MrBostn

        I see plenty of motorcycle riders in sneakers/shorts/wife beater/yamaka type helmet.

        Add flip flops to some scooter drivers.

      • 0 avatar
        aristurtle

        you don’t need to spend hundreds on special clothing if you want to avoid getting seriously exfoliated.

        Sure you do. The door latch opens on a side impact. There was an NHTSA bulletin and everything.

        Anyway, my point is you can’t really get by with a Smart as your only car any more than you can get by with just a motorbike to get around. It turns the thing into an occasional use secondary vehicle, and hey, it turns out that those don’t sell that great in a recession, and frankly who the hell wants a Smart as a secondary car anyway?

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        I see plenty of motorcycle riders in sneakers/shorts/wife beater/yamaka type helmet.

        Stupid is as stupid does. Unfortunately, all that does is raise premiums for people who aren’t stupid.

    • 0 avatar
      Roundel

      I’m not really sure you actually used logic in that post, but ok.
      I think psarhjinian summed it up nicely.

  • avatar
    jberger

    You MUST watch the video to grasp how far left the marketing pitch has gone. After the video, they’d need to pay me $19 a month to even be seen in it.

    When these arrived in the states, they held a preview ride event in town. Part of the preview included a 1 hour test drive of the car. I think mine lasted less than 10 minutes. I tried to merge on the interstate followed by a exit ramp at decent speed. Both were terrifying and not from the size of the car. It handles terribly and the motor feels like a tractor engine.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      They’re going to have trouble leaning on the environmental angle when environmentalists notice that the thing gets a combined EPA rating of 38. That number is the punchline to the whole car, really.

  • avatar
    Jellodyne

    “People are not avoiding the brand or the product, but there is a great majority of people who are not aware of the brand”

    And the ones who are aware of the brand are also aware that the car asks a question that the Fit, Carolla, Yaris, Versa and Accent all answer better. Base price of those cars is within a couple grand, they get similar mileage, have better resale values, better reliability, they all have back seats, mostly with 4 doors. The price of these smart cars is low, but they’re not a good value.

    Going to a two-seater is a sacrifice of space and utility. For a sports car, you’re willing to sacrifice the rear seat for lower weight and shorter wheelbase, which gets you better handling and performance. In the smart you sacrifice space and utility for…. nothing. You would think a little thing like that would be significantly more economical, but it’s not. Basically you’re giving up utility for “cute”. I’m sure someone _could_ make a much more economical car in that size package, maybe with a more sophisticated engine and transmission. Perhaps with a drivetrain like what’s in Fiat’s European 500 TwinAir. If the smart were a 60 MPG car, it would probably sell like hotcakes.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Due to no authority at all given me, I feel the only places these cars have any business in is San Francisco (don’t dare cross any of the bridges and stay off I-280!), New York City – Manhattan only, Boston, Philadelphia proper and other such tightly-wound places where space is at a premium. Aside from that, although I see them in my area, I cringe when I see one in the fast lane of I-75. I give them as wide a berth as I do scooters and motorcycles.

  • avatar
    HoldenSSVSE

    Lets see:

    To small for North American buyers? Check

    Less than stellar fuel economy for its engines output and tiny size? Check

    Premium fuel requirement? Check

    Crappy transmission? Check

    Cargo room? What cargo room? Check

    Mediocre chassis and ride dynamics? Check

    All of this for the price of a very nicely equipped B-Segment sedan/hatch or an entry level C-segment sedan all of which come with more room, more power, better handling, seating for four to five, with a real trunk, and equivalent if not better MPG with more refined engine and transmission combinations? Check

    Ummm, I think that is why the smart doesn’t sell, but that’s just me.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The Smart was designed to be short enough that it could be parked perpendicular in a parallel parking space.

    There’s some value for that in Europe, where many city dwellers need to use every and any bit of available real estate that they can for parking their cars. There is very, very little need for that in the US, as parking isn’t usually in short supply (and in any case, it wouldn’t be legal to park perpendicular in a parallel parking space.)

    We already have green cars that have been successful, such as the Prius, and those have usable space. Without that niche available to it or the Euro-style parking problem to provide motivation, that leaves the Smart car as a “chick” car. And those tend to flop in the US market. Women will buy a car with a manly image, but most men won’t do the reverse.

    I don’t know why they imported it. This was one of those things that was always destined to fail.

    • 0 avatar
      Kosher Polack

      Agreed. The Smart’s only, ONLY selling point, in my mind, is that you could park it sideways in a parallel spot. There’s barely any parallel spots in most of America, and when there are a lot, you’d get a ticket for doing this anyway. Plus, IIRC, the U.S. Smart has larger bumpers that make it juuuust slightly too long for this anyway.

      I would, however, love to take a spin in the Smart Roadster. Too bad the wrong car came to America.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Smart’s problem isn’t one of performance or safety (they’re no worse than many other cars) but of value. If they weren’t afflicted with Mercedes pricing, they’d sell better, and I suspect that this will be handily proven by the (much cheaper) Scion iQ.

    • 0 avatar
      Kosher Polack

      Thank you for being one of the scant few who recognizes that this car isn’t that terribly unsafe. The constant gonaddery of “Oh but you’ll die in it if a SUV hits you” is why we can’t have nicer small cars.

      I remember this sentiment being one of the main reasons why something like the VW GX3 could never come into production.

      • 0 avatar
        obruni

        +1

        the IIHS testing didn’t help matters.

        “since the Smart passed our usual tests, let us create a brand new test to guarantee that the Smart fails”

  • avatar
    OhMyGoat

    The ad tells us that the earth would be a better place if we didn’t buy things we don’t need. So why should I buy a Smart that is at best a second car. One that isn’t particularly affordable to own (except perhaps for that cheap lease?) or operate and provides little or no versatility. No thanks. Oh, and my parallel parking skills are fine so that’s one less reason to own one.

  • avatar
    carguy

    The Smart is successful in Europe because of its size. European cities have narrow streets as they predate cars and that makes a small car attractive. Europe also has other incentives to own micro cars via parking reserved only for micro cars etc. In the US the price of gas maybe on the rise but we have plenty of room so we don’t need ultra compact cars. Instead people buy Hyundai Elantras or Honda Fits for similar money and enjoy great fuel economy plus the added bonus of being able to haul people and gear and not to look like they’re driving an oversize toy. The fact remains that once the initial Smart fashion craze was over, the Smart was found to make no sense in 99% of the US market and that is now reflected in its sales.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      The Smart is successful in Europe

      I’m not sure that the Smart has been a success in any major market. Prior to the recession, the business unit was losing money: http://blogs.motortrend.com/smarts-threeyear-loss-more-than-5-billion-report-says-694.html

      Since that time, Smart has reduced the size of its lineup, and if I’m not mistaken, its operations are no longer accounted for separately. I doubt that it’s profitable now, and it certainly wasn’t before.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      smart was a flop here in europe. was too expensive and not enough premium cachet like mini managed to garner… plan was for 200k+ sales a year with the fortwo only, achieved a bit over 100k IIRC, and I don’t think they even ever achieved the 200k, even when they started selling 3 different body styles…

  • avatar
    Bryce

    SMART people are avoiding this POS

  • avatar
    ze_happyMan

    Every time I see a Smart I feel a little ashamed

  • avatar
    mikey

    The young girl across the stree wanted one. Her dad got her an old Suburu Forester. Now that was smart.

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    A friend of mine has one of these, uses it deliver the “to go” orders for his Thai restaurant.

    It’s cute it and it’s painted to match his restaurant so it’s an attention getter.

    There are a lot of businesses that have done the same thing. That seems to be the way most SMARTs spend their lives in the US.

  • avatar
    svan

    Items one and two to make the Smart brand more interesting, coming from the fingers of one who could use a second city car in his family.

    One. Bring back the diesel.

    Two. Fix whatever made it have so many warranty problems and BRING BACK THE SMART ROADSTER.

    Man, that thing was just perfect.

  • avatar
    CamaroKid

    Maybe in Europe with a manual transmission and a small diesel this car makes sense. But the car that they flog in North America is a MASSIVE turd. The gas engine is a slow, gutless AND thirsty. The steering is all harsh feedback while being completely numb on center. And just when you thought I couldn’t get any worse… The computer control clutch and manumatic transmission HOLLY CRAP this thing shifts gears like someone learning to drive a stick on their first day of drivers-ed. Every time it shifted I felt like I was just rear-ended by a Chevy Cruze. No problem I though I will manually paddle shift it… Wow.. much better (not).. Dealer tells me that there is a computer re-flash that will soften the clutch engagement.. Only at the cost of 3 or 4 MPG… Wow thanks.

    Absolutely THE very WORST car I have EVER driven (I have driven some monster turds from 80’s Detroit). I imagine that the number of people would buy a second one of these to be right around 0.000%

    If your goal is to save the planet, buy a Fit, or a Prius.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Here in Seattle I see these things as they DO make sense in cities like it where parking is often at a premium but with the wheezy 3 banger out back, it’s barely a highway driver. Hell, the 3 pot Geo Metro/Chevy Sprints were MUCH better on the highway than this.

    True the car does cost as low as $10K but for what you get, a Hyundai Accent isn’t much more, nor is the base Yaris or a similar base Kia model for that matter that gives you MUCH more highway potential and more cargo room AND can carry 2 other passengers when necessary.

    Now onto the topic of small cars in general, we Americans have GOT to get over this fear of driving ANYTHING small because while older small cars didn’t provide you with the protections like their similarly built larger brethren back in the day, that’s no longer the case as many now are as safe or safer than some larger cars on the market in protecting their occupants.

    I’m actually interested in the little Fiat who gets 38mpg highway according to the EPA, but in the real world, once broken in, the mileage is more like 42 to as much as 45mpg highway and city mileage has been as much as 32-34 city with a combined average I think close to 38mpg and that’s not hypermiling it either, just driving it a bit more conservatively instead and while still quite small at 140″ in total length, it has decent cargo room, seats 4 and is MUCH more highway friendly than the Smart ever could hope to be.

  • avatar
    shaker

    The (delayed?) Scion iQ will totally dry up demand for the samrt; MB is pushing these things, and the fire sale will be the end of them.

  • avatar
    lostjr

    I saw a shed full of iQs in the Presidio in San Francisco yesterday. A couple of them were out driving around.

    http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6011/5928091401_1e92bf1936_z.jpg

  • avatar
    lostjr

    I finally looked at the video. This is a rip off of the story of stuff.

    http://www.storyofstuff.com/

  • avatar
    axual

    There is nothing about a Smart car that is smart. It’s tiny, it get’s astonishingly poor mileage, it looks like a toy, and is expensive for what you get. Calling people dumb is not smart, and projecting the vehicle is an answer to dumbness is even dumber.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      Astonishingly poor mileage?
      The Smart may not be a good car but it does get the best non-hybrid city fuel mileage that you can get.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      it get’s astonishingly poor mileage

      Honestly, I don’t know where some of you folks get this stuff.

      According to the EPA, the Smart gets the best fuel economy of any non-hybrid gas-powered car sold in the US. You can love it or hate it, but fuel economy is not one of its weaknesses.

  • avatar
    focal

    had the car as a loaner for a few days when my MB was in the shop.

    the Smart wasn’t as bad as it is made out to be.

    the transmission: automated manual so it’s pretty rough at first if you drive it like an automatic, but if you lift off the gas when the gear change is happening it smooths out the ride a lot. Just like a manual

    storage: shocked…we fit two full golf bags and two travel bags on a short day trip…we could easily see out the back window. We could have fitted more. not much worse than a MINI cooper with it’s back seats up.

    handling/ride: nothing great but not horrible.

    image: you look REALLY SILLY in this car

  • avatar
    Glenn Mercer

    I completely agree: it is all about parking. A Mercedes exec told me that smart’s highest local market share globally was in Rome, and given what it is like to park there, it makes sense. If I were smart (boy is that a straight line…) I’d push the parking thing, hard, as other advantages of the car are minimal at best. I own one and my wife, who is a professional musician, always drives it to gigs she is playing in, since even if the concert-goers have snapped up every parking space in sight, she can always find a spot with the smart (and yup, it does easily hold a cello). One does have to admit that the market segment of parking-constrained-and-with-cello is possibly not large enough to build a business case on…. (grin)

  • avatar
    Zackman

    If you can get a banjo to fit, why not?


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Contributing Writers

  • Jack Baruth, United States
  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Vojta Dobes, Czech Republic
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Cameron Aubernon, United States
  • J Emerson, United States