By on June 19, 2017

2017 smart fortwo cabrio electric drive (Euro spec image)

It’s been roughly a decade since Daimler’s Smart Automobile first caressed America’s purple mountains and amber waves of grain with the microscopic Fortwo. Despite a promising first year in the United States, the brand never really managed to carve a space out for itself in a competitive and size-obsessed marketplace. The same is true (over a slightly longer timeline) for Canada.

Standalone Smart dealerships have become a rarity, frequently rolled into Mercedes-Benz sales lots over the years. But both have to ask themselves the same question: Is it worth pursuing sales when Daimler converts the little two-seater into a pure electric later this year and abandons the gasoline engine?

Obviously, the gut reaction is to tell every Mercedes-Benz franchise “probably not” and recommend any standalone Smart dealership immediately consider arson. Small car sales in North America are dwindling and EV sales are miniscule. Claiming a vehicle that exists as one of the least capable examples of both is a good investment is not something any rational person would suggest. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for the unfortunately named Fortwo ED in North America. 

“Electric Smart vehicles make sense in certain markets, but don’t make as much sense in other markets,” Ken Schnitzer, chairman of the Mercedes-Benz dealer board and owner of two Smart outlets in Texas, told Automotive News. “So it might make some sense for some dealers to become service-only dealers.”

Schnitzer may want to heed his own advice. His Smart locations may occupy metropolitan hubs like Dallas and Fort Worth, but he noted Texas was not particularly fond of EVs. “Drive times and range can make a big difference — it’s not like being in downtown San Francisco,” Schnitzer explained.

Not to poke holes in the man’s prejudice against San Francisco, but Smart Fortwo ED ownership might actually be easier to live with in his part of Texas. A commuter could theoretically make the round trip between Dallas and Fort Worth on a single charge but a San Franciscan could never make it to another major metropolitan area (except for Berkley) before surpassing the little EV’s 83 mile range on the return trip.

“It might not make sense for some of the dealers, depending on where they are in the country, to continue,” Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Dietmar Exler explained. “That’s something we’re discussing with our dealers. But for electric-important markets, I have not had one conversation with a dealer who would not want to continue.”

Smart cars being relegated, almost exclusively, to major cities is nothing new. But converting them to electric drive pigeonholes them more than usual. Occasionally, you will see a Fortwo making its way down a rural backroad — bravely venturing out of the city on some grand adventure. That won’t be the case with the electric-only models until electric charging stations become ubiquitous.

In fact, the best use imaginable for it is to continue as the staple vehicle for Daimler’s Car2Go urban rental business. Assuming an employee comes along to charge it every few days, it still makes an ideal runabout for city folk. But that doesn’t help dealers.

2017 smart fortwo cabrio electric drive (Euro spec image)

Daimler wants to keep the Smart EV around to benefit its corporate emissions rating, but it’s going to be a tough sell for customers. People have already turned away from the gasoline-powered Fortwo. U.S. sales were strong in 2008 at 24,622 units, but they plummeted with the price of fuel. Last year only saw 6,211 U.S. deliveries. Canada, which has been a bit kinder to the car, saw 4,080 peak deliveries in 2005 and only 1,875 in 2016.

With the Fortwo ED retailing at $24,550, nearly ten grand more than the outgoing gasoline coupe’s base sum, it’s difficult to imagine who is going to want to fork over the cash. Tax credits and a more refined driving experience will help alleviate some trepidation, but that relief will be short lived when the shopper realizes the Fortwo gives up its biggest advantage as an EV.

The best thing about microcars is easy on-street parking in densely populated cities. It’s the primary reason you still see so many Smart cars in New York. The best thing about owning an EV is being able to charge your car in your home garage. If you’re frequently parking your vehicle on the street, odds are good you don’t have a car port with an easily accessible outlet and nobody is going to want to drive twenty miles through city traffic to wait two hours to recharge their Fortwo.

Need more proof that this is a bad idea? InsideEVs claims Smart only sold 54 electric models within the United States between January and May.

Exler remains hopeful, however. He expects some of the gasoline-model demand to migrate over to the Smart EVs. “We’re hoping they will come up quite a bit from that point,” he said. “How high they go, we will have to see.”

[Image: Daimler AG]

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20 Comments on “Should All Smart Dealers Burn Down Their Lots This Summer?...”

  • avatar

    I just don’t see how it will work for their Car2Go service in many areas where they are just street parked with no good way to put a charger there. Plus the whole premise is that it is there and ready to go at any time. If the previous driver did just take it for a longer spin how long will you have to wait until it has enough range to make your trip?

    Already I’m seeing less of the Smarts in C2G livery and more of the Mercedes with their less obvious door graphic.

    • 0 avatar

      Offhand, they do have a staff who ensure the cars are relocated, cleaned, and fueled (beyond what is asked of the regular users) – I’d assume it’d be easy enough on their back end to flag any EV that’s street parked and/or below a certain charge threshold.

      Their app, and a display in the front window, already show the fuel level – there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same for charge level, or lock any car with insufficient range down just as any reserved unit is rendered unavailable.

  • avatar

    I don’t see an option for quick charging. There’s plenty of charging available in most cities, so you could make it work without home charging, but only if it had quick charging capability. If they wanted to fix it, give it 300kW charging capability and that little 17.2 kW battery would probably charge in less than 5 minutes.

    One use I’ve seen for cars like this is for courier services. They pull up into a tight space in front of a building, grab or drop off the package, and go on their way. It would be great for couriers, but it still would need the quick charging.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      It’s a little over 2 hours to restore 80% of the charge in the ForTwo ED using a 240V socket. Regular outlets take a full 24 hours if you’re completely out of juice.

  • avatar

    The obvious solution is to take wireless cell phone charging technology and apply it to this car!

  • avatar
    George B

    The appeal of the Smart car has become increasingly selective. The natural environment for the Smart car is an urban side street with parallel parking in unmarked spaces. The problem is that places with this very specific problem that the Smart car solves don’t have a convenient place to plug in an electric car to charge overnight. Electric cars are better suited to inner suburbs where people have the combination of a house with a garage and short drives.

  • avatar

    It is unfortunate that companies have to burn money to comply with stupid, unnecessary corprate fleet mileage averages.

  • avatar

    I bet that if Bob Dole was their spokesman they would get an increase in sales!

  • avatar

    Smart is better suited to large European cities that were laid out before the car was born, but even there it is not very popular and certainly not profitable. I would not be surprised at all if the whole brand gets shut down.

  • avatar
    Glenn Mercer

    Just echoing the remarks about parking. I have owned two smarts (one currently). Not because they are fast, comfortable, fun to drive, or even very fuel-efficient (they ain’t). But as I have family members who are professional musicians, who HAVE to always be able to find a parking space at various performance venues, no matter how crowded, this thing is spectacularly well suited to our needs. We can ALWAYS wedge this little guy in somewhere…. typically in that odd-sized space between the last parking meter on block X and the edge of cross-road Y. (It’s not a use-case niche big enough to keep any product line afloat, of course.) I only mention this because I think I have found the only car I know of whose value is generated when IT IS NOT MOVING. Are there other examples of this bizarre value proposition?

    • 0 avatar

      Clearly, you folks are not transporting double-bass drum kits. ;)

      The smallest car I could fit my 5-piece Ludwigs (including my cymbals, hardware and electronics) into was my Sunfire GT. And by the time I did that, only the driver’s seat was empty.

      I finally get a van and the band dissolves. Ugh.

      • 0 avatar

        Suck it up man, drummers are stuck with wagons or vans. Vans preferably, so you can haul the real musician’s gear while we bang your GF in the back. (I kid, or do I?)

  • avatar

    Actually I don;t see how this will work for Car2Go. Users expect the cars to be ready to go, what if ti’s not fully charged? Where will a service vehicle stop in an urban area to recharge them? Double park? How long will it take?

    I can’t think of why anyone would purchase an electric Smart over an e-Golf.

    • 0 avatar

      e-Golf? Forget it. The Chevy Bolt is the best game in town now. 200 mile range. It costs a lot more than the Smart, but 200-mile range is very livable. If you live in the city, you could charge at a quick charger and go for days without home charging.

  • avatar

    Las Vegas had a smart dealer, then it got folded in to an M-B dealer, now that dealer only does smart service, no sales. Been like that a couple years already.

  • avatar

    There’s no way it’d happen, but smart already has the forfour in Europe, and smart-branded A-Class and B-Class hatches would fit reasonably organically in with the brand (the B-class, especially, should be easy enough to federalize, as they’ve got the powertrain here in the CLA/GLA, and the B itself in EV form). Of course, that’s getting rather close to the Fiat model, which can barely sustain itself.

    Still, as much as I support the smart, I’m shocked they felt they could sustain standalone dealers outside of a couple urban centres in the Northeast. Even here in Toronto, I believe all of their locations are housed within the larger corporate-run Benz dealers.

  • avatar

    I rented the four-door version for a week in Sicily a while back. It had a surprisingly large and well-done interior. Made it seem as if it were a much much larger car. Also had a turbo so it was fun to drive. I couldn’t remember the last time I drove a car where I felt I was going too fast for the kind of vehicle I was driving.

  • avatar

    Matt, the “Inside EV’s” data does not explain anything other than raw numbers. Unfortunately your opinion was based on a lack of perspective. The smart EV “only sold 54” models between January and May primarily because the smart EV was SOLD OUT NATIONWIDE all year. This is very important information that you left out of your article because you did not know that the smart EV was essentially sold out. Your article worked under the assumption that nobody wanted the car when that assumption was not true at all.

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