Doug Drives: The Problem With Selling A Stylish Car

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro
doug drives the problem with selling a stylish car

I recently got up behind a Smart car in traffic the other day, and I realized something: Smart has managed to do what very few other brands can boast about. They’ve successfully redesigned a car that sells primarily based on its style.

Now, you might think this is a bit of an unusual point, because you probably don’t think the Smart Fortwo is a very stylish car.

In fact, you probably think it looks like a shopping cart with alloy wheels. But hear me out, here, because I think one of the biggest challenges automakers face is redesigning stylish cars. And I think the good folks over at Smart deserve some credit for doing it right.

First, a brief overview of the problem. When you debut a car where style is the main selling point, buyers all want to be the first in line to own it. “THAT’S SO COOL!” people say. “I WANT TO BE THE FIRST TO OWN THAT!” And then they rush down to the dealership, and they pay over sticker, and then three years later they realize they’re driving around in a PT Cruiser.

This is the problem: cars whose primary selling point is style have almost no shelf life. When BMW redesigns a Z4, the new model is relevant for approximately four weeks before every cool L.A. mistress has one. Then it’s over. There’s a new Mercedes out, or an Audi, or a Land Rover that looks like it can probably take on the most challenging parking curbs at the Starbucks on Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard without a fight.

So how the hell do you redesign a car whose success is based on styling?

Many automakers simply don’t. The PT Cruiser’s early success largely revolved around its unusual design, which held considerable appeal way back when it came out. By 2005, it was clear that Chrysler had absolutely no idea where to take it next. So they did a convertible, and they body colored the bumpers, and eventually the car was a bigger joke than the marketing intern who gets her foot stuck in the printer.

But the PT Cruiser isn’t the only example of a stylish car that froze like a deer in the headlights after its initial success. In fact, there have been dozens. The Nissan Cube. The Lexus SC 430. The Chevy HHR. The Cadillac XLR. I could go on for days: “style”-based cars that earned some success initially, then fizzled out over time as their automakers had no idea how to redesign them.

And then there are the car companies who “evolve” the design. A good example of this is the New Beetle. First, we had the original New Beetle, which came out in 2000 to great fanfare. Then we had the “new” New Beetle, which came out much later to approximately the same fanfare a laminate flooring company gets when they put out a press release announcing the retirement of their vice president of sales for the eastern region.

It’s the same story with the Camaro. In 2008, we got a totally new model that was truly among the coolest things on the road. In 2016, we’re getting an “updated” version that looks basically identical to last year’s model.

The reason for this is that Chevy and Volkswagen got themselves trapped. People loved the look of the Camaro, and they loved the look of the Beetle, and so the design folks sat around for days asking themselves “WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?” And the answer was: barely anywhere. Smooth it out a bit. Tell people it’s new. That’ll do the trick.

Then there were the cars that suffered both fates. My favorite example is the Honda Element, which originally debuted to so much excitement at a time when most cars were pretty dull, largely due to its unabashed weirdness. People loved it. People went to the dealer, all excited for their box car, and they plunked down some actual amount of money to own an Element instead of a CR-V. And then once all those people had their Elements, sales stopped. So Honda employed both strategies discussed above. First, there was a redesign that you had to be a Honda dealer to spot. Then, outright cancellation. Nice.

But the Smart car is different.

Now, you might be shaking your head here, because I still suspect there is some chance that you do not consider the Smart Fortwo to be a stylish vehicle. But let me tell you something: the people who own them do. A lot of people in Europe buy this car because it’s small, cheap and parkable. Nobody in North America does. The reason people in North America buy this car is twofold: No. 1, so they can admire how cute their car is. And, also so they can tell their friends how they “don’t need” all that space.

And this year, the Smart Fortwo has been redesigned. And do you know what? Smart actually managed to successfully redesign a style-based car.

Unlike weak redesigns such as the “new New Beetle” and the Element, the Fortwo actually looks measurably different than its predecessor. And unlike the PT Cruiser and the Cube and the HHR and the SC 430, they didn’t cancel it. The new Smart is so different, in fact, that Smart owners might actually want to go on down to the Smart dealer and trade in their old Smart for a new one. How many Beetle owners do you know who did that? The answer is none, because instead they had their car towed into a Toyota dealer after a severe electronics failure, and they bought a Corolla.

The point is, it seems the folks at Smart have done the impossible: they’ve managed to come up with a desirable new style for a car that originally debuted with a desirable new style. “We decided we didn’t NEED all that space,” owners of the all-new Smart Fortwo will soon say to me, in the same condescending tone as ever. “In your BRAIN?” I will reply. And then I’ll saunter off, disappointed, because actually the new Smart Fortwo is kind of cool.

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4 of 112 comments
  • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Nov 22, 2015

    Unfortunately success traps one into a pattern of repetition. If a car company, singer, rock band, motorcycle company et al come out with an iconic design/style/song they are often trapped by it until they flog it into oblivion. It is a vicious circular trap. A perfect example is Harley Davidson. They appeal to outlaw bikers, fringe outliers, and wannabe baby boomers. They have had very poor success expanding their market base. I have yet to see a "Street" 500 or 750. The Vr1200 was the only bike I found appealing but virtually everyone else had a better bike. Even Buell was destined to failure.

  • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Nov 22, 2015

    @highdesertcat - the stats in that link are telling. A bike(or car or truck) can be one of the most unreliable out their but still rank as one of the most satisfying. That shows the power of brand image and fan'aticism'. All of the guys I know that own Harley's are rabid about their bikes. If one looks at motorcycle sales in general the Japanese have reintroduced a slew of smaller bikes in the 125-250 range. They have had great success attracting new clients and riding the wave of popularity associated with motorcycles. Harley fans have the attitude that a 1200 or smaller Harley is a "woman's bike". That is never meant as a compliment. That very attitude is intimidating to new riders that don't want to start out on huge 800-1000 lb bikes. It also has lead to an increase in MVC's with larger displacement cruisers as new riders or returning riders buy too much bike for their skill sets. My brother hadn't ridden much since his teens/early 20's and I suggested he buy a used small bike to get his "sea legs" back. He was insulted. I used to see mostly young motorcyclists on sport bikes getting into serious crashes but now I tend to see more boomers on big bikes crashing.

    • Highdesertcat Highdesertcat on Nov 22, 2015

      Interestingly enough for my family, NONE of my children or grand children have taken to motorcycles, although they grew up with a variety of used motorcycles and ATVs in my household. But what galls me is to see these old codgers my age on their three-wheeler motorcycles. It's OK for a lady to ride a three-wheeler, but a man!? Never! For a man to ride a three-wheeler is disgusting and reminiscent of riding a Big Wheel when they were kids. Most "real" motorcycle riders would strap on a side-car if they become too frail to hold a bike upright. I make a distinction between a long-fork Trike (i.e. VW-powered) and a Meter-Maid three-wheeler. Closest thing to a motorcycle IMO is a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Rides better than a bike on the open road, and it can go where road-riders fear to tread. The most popular Hog in my area is the 1380 Rubber Drive. Quite a number of them owned by old guys trying to relive their youth and failing miserably, and by young German military men. The Harley F150 pickup truck is also quite popular, usually indicating the driver is a fan of the Hog brand. And in my area, at my 4800ft altitude, year-'round biking is common, with snow and ice usually starting around the higher elevations. The Germans ride their bikes year-'round because they're dressed for it in Leathers. Most common bikes ridden by the young US military people stationed in this area are usually a Japanese product, with the Hogs, Victory and Buell being the ride of choice for the German military stationed here. The Germans get to buy their bikes (and cars) "tax-free" under the reciprocal Status of Forces agreement, and upon the completion of their tour here, they take their bikes (and cars) back to Germany with them. Kinda a reverse of what American GIs did while they were stationed in Europe, way back when.

  • Jeff S If AM went away I would listen to FM but since it is insignificant in the cost to the car and in an emergency broadcast it is good to have. I agree with some of the others its another way to collect money with a subscription. AM is most likely to go away in the future but I will use AM as long as its around.
  • BEPLA I think it's cool the way it is.If I had the money, time and space - I'd buy it, clean it up, and just do enough to get it running properly.Then take it to Cars and Coffee and park it next to all the newer Mustangs.
  • Dave M. I suppose Jethro’s farm report comes via AM, but there’s a ton of alternative ways to get that info. Move forward people. Progress is never easy.
  • BEPLA For anything but the base model, I'd rather have a pre-owned Polestar 2.
  • BEPLA "Quality is Job........well, it's someone's job, but it's not our job.Neither is building vehicles that people actually want or need.We only build what's most profitable. If only someone would buy our 97 day supply of SuperDutys."