By on April 4, 2009

No, it has nothing to do with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. I know: I shouldn’t be dissing the Smart. Even though American purveyors of Daimler’s diminutive darling are having a little problem with customers walking away from their advance deposits, Smart was the only brand amongst America’s 46 automotive nameplates that posted a sales gain in March. OK, we’re talking about a one percent gain, to just 1,746 units (the rounding error for Camry sales). So . . . the Smart is one of a handful of cars that makes me want to get out and walk, but The New York Times hearts the fashion victim’s overpriced rolling penalty box, big style. About which the Gray Lady brings glad tidings! Daimler is dumping 200 Smarts into an Austin, TX car share program. True story. What’s more, YOU pay THEM for access to the cars.

Specifically, the Austin service will offer drivers shared access to 200 Smart Fortwos 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To confirm a car’s availability, customers hold a member card over a card reader on the car’s windshield. If the car is available, the door will unlock. The driver can then access the keys from the glove compartment using a PIN. If the car is not available, the customer will be directed to the nearest available Car2go. The service also lets you prebook your vehicle and locate a car by phone or the Web.

That sounds unnecessarily complicated to me. Why not just leave the keys in the ignition? I kid. But seriously, the template German car2go service is a big hit. With the media, anyway. And isn’t that what’s really important? For the media, anyway.

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25 Comments on “Daimler Finds Use for 200 U.S. Smart Cars...”


  • avatar
    TEW

    I know a couple of people who you use this type of service but they would never want to drive a Smart car. They don’t drive much and having the upkeep associated with a car is not worth it to them but they still want to be able to drive. Also this would be a good service for the Armed Forces members who are out of the county most of the year but still need to get around when in the states.

  • avatar
    MikeInCanada

    My daughter (and the rest of her Gen Y slacker friends) will just love this… This will work in Austin as the city if just full of organic posers to whom a SMART car is an acceptable fashion upgrade from their MacBooks and IPhones.

  • avatar
    kowsnofskia

    I know a couple of people who you use this type of service but they would never want to drive a Smart car. They don’t drive much and having the upkeep associated with a car is not worth it to them but they still want to be able to drive. Also this would be a good service for the Armed Forces members who are out of the county most of the year but still need to get around when in the states.

    There is a similar service in Cleveland called CityWheels, but it uses Priuses and Fits instead.

  • avatar

    So Cleveland is doing this in Fits and Smarts.

  • avatar
    john.fritz

    So… Who is responsible for keeping these 200 crap cans clean? The people using them? Good luck getting that to happen.

    Q: What’s worse that driving a car no one wants?
    A: Driving one that’s full of other people’s shit.

    Oh, and remember, no smoking boys and girls!

  • avatar
    ajla

    Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to fill it up with premium.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    As long as everyone feels good and it’s for the children.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    Carshare programs are very effective in urban environments, eg CityCarShare/Zipcar in SF and DC.

    However, the Smart is a really REALLY bad choice for such a service. You want cars that can seat 4 and carry a lot, eg, various hatchbacks, or at least generic Civrolla class cars.

    Priuses are great choices: low depreciation, high bling factor, and high utility for customers from the hatch design.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Mr. Weaver has it right!

  • avatar
    maniceightball

    Yeah, what’s with the carshare hate? It makes complete sense in some areas of the country (e.g. where there’s a combination of easy and cheap public transportation and pain-in-the-ass expensive parking).

    In any case, I second Nicholas Weaver — there are so many better alternatives. ZipCar I think uses Minis, which work great in San Francisco. Everywhere else, it’s usually a regular or hybrid Civic, with the occasional splattering of Corollas and Priuses.

  • avatar
    Detroit-X

    Using them for a car-share is just fine. At least they don’t go directly to a landfill, or a high school shop class.

    In my non-interstate, suburban/rural commute, I can easily get 40-43 MPG in a Chevy Cobalt with gentle acceleration, short-shifting, and reasonable coasting up to lights (and with no insane, hyper-miler nonsense). And the Cobalt’s a real car; room for up to five, luggage, and unicorns in the back window. So why buy a Smart-Car?

    Seeing one on the road causes an uneasy feeling inside me. My first impression is a queasy feeling that some preschooler is driving her electric, Barbi-Jeep on the road and will get creamed. But really, it’s like the automotive equivalent to those 1950s bomb shelters. “I’m ultra-intelligent and ready for doomsday. Nah-naahhh.”

    I don’t think I would feel this way if it cost $5,000, but the fact that the car’s capability is so small, the fuel economy is so poor (relatively), and someone pays over $12,000 for them, and whew. What more can I say. Stupid Flanders.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Maniceball – I agree. Why are there so many people in this country that if they don’t don’t like an idea (or a product or a style) – get all ugly about it? The careshare program doesn’t affect you at all. And the small cars don’t either. Just leaves more gasoline to go around for those of you who drive the thirsty rides.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    The strange thing is DAIMLER is doing it, not a third party. Its a pretty brutal business actually, and Daimler really has NO suitable car in the US (unlike europe where you have the B class), while the private companies and nonprofits can buy Fits and Prii, Mazda3 hatches and Mini Coopers (in parking-tight SF), which are the perfect cars for that niche.

    And Austin is a bad city to start out in anyway, you want “As dense as possible” (think New York, San Francisco, DC), not “the fourth largest city in Texas”.

    For reference, City Car Share (a SF nonprofit doing this)
    has
    1 Caravan
    1 Civic Hybrid
    2 smarts
    3 Elements
    a scattering of minis,
    a few Tacomas,
    and an absolute crapload of Fits, xAs, xBs, xDs, yarises, priuses

    A smart-only based Carshare might work in Manhattan, but not Texas.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    However, the Smart is a really REALLY bad choice for such a service. You want cars that can seat 4 and carry a lot, eg, various hatchbacks, or at least generic Civrolla class cars.

    Not necessarily. Those who rent these things sometimes just need to drive themselves around to run their errands, and to have a car that’s easy to park. The whole point of a Smart car is to have a vehicle that can fit just about anywhere, and its primary advantage would be in a high density urban environment with limited parking, the same kind of place where car sharing can gain a foothold.

    That being said, this tells me that Daimler just can’t sell them. Fleet sales are the fate for cars that people don’t want to buy.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    I live in Manhattan and see Smarts all over. I don’t get it – can someone explain the appeal? I’d rather stick with my bike to load up at the Whole Foods. There’s no effective utility to them, they look like crushable beer cans, and apparently get lousy mileage for their size. Plus they’re not exactly “roadable” – I can only imagine what they’re like in the wide open spaces of the Texas Hill Country. Methinks Daimler is a bit desperate for fleet sales now that the bloom is off its microcar rose.

    That being said, I LOVE Zipcar! I usually get Minis and Mazda 3 hatches. They’re great for scooting around taxis, parking it tight spaces, getting big boxes of stuff, or carrying people places where public transit isn’t great. There are also Tacoma pickups and the like, and usually the vehicles are pretty good. They make a lot of sense. Now Hertz is rolling out a competitive service that I’m curious to try — especially when they start offering 2011 Fiestas!

  • avatar
    George B

    And Austin is a bad city to start out in anyway, you want “As dense as possible” (think New York, San Francisco, DC), not “the fourth largest city in Texas”.

    I disagree. In a high density urban environment with widespread public transportation like New York City or San Francisco it’s possible to live without a car. In Austin or other places with high density only near a huge university (Ann Arbor, MI and Columbus, OH, etc.) you need a car to shop, but getting a parking place near campus is a real pain. Near universities, sharing a car may be more convenient than either owning a car or attempting to use public transportation.

  • avatar
    T2

    However, the Smart is a really REALLY bad choice for such a service. You want cars that can seat 4 and carry a lot, eg, various hatchbacks, or at least generic Civrolla class cars.

    So you want me to imagine :
    You are a person temporarily renting a car for yourself since the climate for awarding leases to anyone with a pulse and no money down is now in the throes of nuclear winter. But now, three friends show up. And guess what ? Not one of them has a car either. In America ? Sorry I have a problem buying into that, or this recession is worse than I thought.
    T2

  • avatar
    Pch101

    In Austin or other places with high density only near a huge university (Ann Arbor, MI and Columbus, OH, etc.) you need a car to shop, but getting a parking place near campus is a real pain. Near universities, sharing a car may be more convenient than either owning a car or attempting to use public transportation.

    I think that this is key — it’s about appealing to the university population, which is more open minded about not owning a car, and which is less likely to have the money to afford one, anyway.

    An advantage to the car share operators here is that they will rent to the under-25’s more easily than would the conventional rental companies. They will basically own this market. Even if the market is fairly small, it can still be profitable if they can get 100% of it.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Agreed, the UT district of Austin is the perfect target audience for a car-share service. Most of the time a student has no need for a car, but to have one available the few days of a month you really want one is very useful. Zipcar is on the UC Santa Cruz campus about an hour from us and seems to be a good fit. Santa Cruz is hardly a big, high-density city, but most of the time most of the students do what they need to do using their feet or buses. Having access to a car for the rare trip when you really need it is great.

    I wonder what the age minimum is for Zipcar and the like? Insurance costs for young drivers could be a big issue.

    Our daughter is away at college now and has her car (93 Volvo 240) with her, but I’m not sure how economical that choice is. Insurance (liability only) is almost $1k/year because she is 19, parking on campus in a remote lot costs $500/school year, and she often doesn’t use the car for a week or two at a time. Even though lightly used, the car still requires repairs from time to time (failed fuel pressure regulator most recently).

    I’m confident that the car share companies will figure out what places and at what prices their business model makes sense. Eventual consolidation seems to be in order though. It would be nice to have your car share contract work everywhere and not to need different contracts in different cities. I still remember the bad old days of the early fragmented US cell phone network. At least with that your phone still worked in different places … but the roaming service charges were nuts.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    I wonder what the age minimum is for Zipcar and the like?

    It’s 18 or 21, depending upon the location. Most car rental agencies either don’t rent to under-25’s at all or else charge substantial premiums.

    One of their Zipcar’s is working with universities to establish programs for their students. Pretty smart strategy, in my opinion, a very smart way to niche the market. If this works, this company is going to sell for a pretty penny.

  • avatar
    windswords

    “I know: I shouldn’t be dissing the Smart.”

    Yes you should. Besides, when has that ever stopped you?

  • avatar
    superbadd75

    So how does the whole Zipcar thing work, anyway? Is it really any cheaper than just renting a ride for a day or two? Some of those places have decent rates for the same compact cars that seem to be offered in these carshares, and their weekend rates are usually killer.

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    Zipcar is cheaper if you only need the car for an hour or two.

    If you are over 25, and need a car for a day, Enterprise is vastly cheaper.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    superbadd75 :
    April 6th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    So how does the whole Zipcar thing work, anyway? Is it really any cheaper than just renting a ride for a day or two? Some of those places have decent rates for the same compact cars that seem to be offered in these carshares, and their weekend rates are usually killer.

    It certainly can be, Superbadd. Two weeks ago I rented a Mini Cooper to 2 hours, going to a part of NYC not well-served by mass transit. I had to pick up two heavy boxes and run a few errands.

    Total cost was $27.74 and gasoline’s included. Tolls are extra, but I didn’t use any. If I’d done the same round-trip by car service, it would have cost 2-3 times that plus I did the driving.

    You do have to watch your return times, though. If your car is due back at say, 5pm and you’re 10 minutes late and someone else is picking it up, they’ll sock you with a $50 charge. But that’s part of what you agree to. Overall, it’s a good deal if you use it right.


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