Smart Stays the Course in Europe as It Shifts Focus in the United States

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
smart stays the course in europe as it shifts focus in the united states

You’d probably never guess this from examining any parking lot in suburban North America, but Daimler’s microcar brand is actually doing exceedingly well. Despite the global trend toward crossovers, Smart saw record sales last year and increased its global volume 21 percent to 144,479 units. More amazing is that it’s still a brand that owes the entirety of its success to one niche market.

Smart doesn’t seem interested in changing course, either. While it’s abandoning internal combustion units to pursue a strict EV-only mentality in the United States, it will be business as usual for the the rest of the planet. But, with much of the industry offering spanking new compact crossovers and with fuel prices still so low, wouldn’t it be in Smart’s best interest to look beyond the limited microcar segment?

Not according to Annette Winkler, head of Smart since 2010. In a recent interview with Automotive News, she said there was no need to branch out. “In this current generation of models, I don’t see the necessity for a crossover,” she said. “We should also stick to what Smart always wanted to be and was invented to be: the perfect city car with smart solutions that provide more quality of life in an urban environment.”

Instead Smart will pursue ways to integrate the ForTwo and overseas-only ForFour with smartphones. In fact, Daimler will likely continue using the brand as a testing ground for experimental services. Car2Go is a good example. Initially, the ride-sharing application was exclusive to Smart-branded vehicles — which I’ve seen encroaching on ZipCar’s territory all over New York City. Now, after a successful test run, Mercedes-Benz has begun inserting its own vehicles into that fleet.

Market research has also shown that urbanites, who are much more likely to own a Smart, are more interested in connectivity services and willing to pay for high-tech features — making them the perfect guinea pigs.

It is, however, a limiting segment in some markets. Smart sales dwindled in the United States, never again reaching the success of its rookie year — 24,622 units in 2008. Meanwhile, Canada has seen middling sales since the brand’s launch. This eventually resulted in Daimler’s decision to take combustion engined units out of the U.S. and focus entirely on electrics. A good case could also be made for the bad publicity surrounding the ForTwo’s tendency for engine fires having something to do with it.

“With the previous generation, in peak times electric variants were responsible for a quarter of our U.S. sales and more than 50 percent in Canada. We think that this openness to the electric drive from our customers is very important and my view is that the Smart EV is the smartest Smart ever,” Winkler explained. “Secondly, there is a business impact for us. The microcar segment in the U.S. is shrinking more and more, so it makes sense to focus on the variant that has the bigger potential. In the U.S., this is certainly the electric drive.”

While Winker says this isn’t a strategy the company plans to pursue in other markets, she asserts it’s all part of some original scheme to grow EVs in North America, citing the country’s superior electric infrastructure and describing the ForTwo Cabriolet as the perfect vehicle for eco-friendly states.

“There are no other battery-only open cars so it is a perfect proposition for states such as California and Florida,” she said. “Also, don’t forget that Smart was invented from the very beginning to become electric.”

Smart is likely to see continued success in other countries but, outside of major metropolitan areas, its appeal remains limited in the United States. That could always change if there were a sudden gas shortage, but as an EV-specific brand with only a two-seater on offer, it wouldn’t be inconceivable to see it relegated to ride-sharing services. With 2.2 million Car2Go users at the end of 2016 making 74 million trips, that might not big a terrible space to occupy.

[Images: Mercedes-Benz]

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2 of 9 comments
  • Threeer Threeer on May 02, 2017

    I was very excited when they decided to roll out a manual variant here in the US...until I saw the price tag for a new one. Yikes! Used first gen smarts are pretty cheap and I would "almost" consider one for a DD as my commute is a short 15 minutes and I am always the only pax in my car.

  • Slap Slap on May 03, 2017

    Unless you have severe parking problems, a Prius is a better solution.

  • SCE to AUX I charge at home 99% of the time, on a Level 2 charger I installed myself in 2012 for my Leaf. My house is 1967, 150-Amp service, gas dryer and furnace; everything else is electric with no problems. I switched from gas HW to electric HW last year, when my 18-year-old tank finally failed.I charge at a for-pay station maybe a couple times a year.I don't travel more than an hour each way in my Ioniq 1 EV, so I don't deal much with public chargers. Despite a big electric rate increase this year, my car remains ridiculously cheap to operate.
  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.