It was a good idea, in theory, to make a micro car. In practice, with the drag coefficient of a Ford Windstar, the Smart ended up with lots of drawbacks and questionable benefits. Daimler is going to be deciding the fate of Smart this year, and things don’t look good for it.
It’s already well known that the brand has been unprofitable, and that Daimler can’t afford to keep taking losses. According to AutoNews.com, the incoming CEO didn’t have kind words for the brand. He has “no history with Smart,” and further “no scruples about killing the brand if necessary.”
This comes after several cost-cutting moves that didn’t work. Daimler already tried to share development costs with Renault for the small cars, with Renault’s Twingo sharing the underpinnings. They’ve also tried cashing in on Smart’s green credibility by making it a niche EV-only brand, but it’s still suffering from shrinking sales that leave it unprofitable.
Jalopnik points out that Daimler decided to keep producing a few of the gas versions of the car for its Car2Go carsharing service, but even those are being replaced with larger vehicles. In the US, Smart sales peaked in the first year they were sold, and have been declining ever since. In at least the US market, sales of crossovers, trucks, and SUVs are on the rise, so it should be no surprise that something as tiny as the Smart fails to impress buyers.
My theory on the car’s failure is that it just didn’t deliver on the green promises it made. There are many people who want to save money and/or save the environment, and wouldn’t mind driving an unusual and inconvenient vehicle to do that. A tiny car with a tiny engine should give impressive returns, and it’s certainly possible to do so. The Smart, in its first year for sale in the US, only got an EPA combined rating of 36 MPG, with 33 in the city and 41 on the highway.
In 2010, it was in the top 10 for EPA mileage among small cars, but was beat by larger Honda hybrids. The cars just below it, the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta, were just barely beat on EPA MPG, and those cars were known to get better mileage than EPA for many drivers. Among larger sedans, hybrid models from a number of other manufacturers got better mileage and lower emissions, while giving the driver and her or his family a much more useful and comfortable vehicle.
As time went on, the situation only got worse for the little car. Hybrids got cheaper, and were available in a variety of different styles, including SUVs. The last year it was offered in a gas-powered version, the Smart Fortwo actually got slightly lower EPA fuel economy ratings, at 33 city and 38 highway.
Even as an electric vehicle, it’s just not that efficient. Compared to the Nissan LEAF, it gets slightly lower MPGe, while delivering less than half the range and being far less useful and comfortable. Most people just wouldn’t consider it as a viable option, even to save $6,000.
The sad thing is that it’s very possible to make a more efficient micro car, but for some reason Smart just didn’t want to do it. The tall and skinny, but flat-backed, shape of the car is not only unattractive for most buyers, but gives it more aerodynamic drag than a minivan. Relying on tiny motors works for motorcycles, but the anemic motor they put in the Smart was probably just under too much stress for everyday driving to deliver good economy. It seems to be a car built for Euro and EPA efficiency tests, but not for drivers. Finally, they never sold the hybrid version in the US, letting the competition for many other manufacturers trounce it.
For a micro car, a shrunken and modernized version of something like a Toyota MR2 or Pontiac Fiero would be far better. Much lower drag coefficients and better mileage could be achieved in a car that people would actually want to buy for its sporty looks. Especially today, it would be possible to come up with a car that gives great performance and even better efficiency in a small and sleek package.
But with today’s electric vehicles, there is little reason to make the sacrifice most would have to make to get a micro car. When there are sportier, more practical, and more capable alternatives that still don’t emit at the tailpipe and run on cheap electricity, it just doesn’t add up. That’s probably why Smart is on the way out.
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