Travel to Europe, and you’ll see them everywhere: Smart cars. They zip down brick-paved alleys, they zoom into holes in clogged traffic, and they park just about anywhere, backed-up to the curb, their stubby dimensions turning parallel spaces into perpendicular ones. Affordable, efficient, and designed as a personal accessory more than a car, the Smart ForTwo is smart. In Europe.
In America, the Smart ForTwo is anything but intelligent. With two seats, three cylinders, wild styling, gutless performance, and almost zero cargo room, it just didn’t make any sense to the vast majority of American consumers. A switch to electric drivetrains for 2018 resulted in a collective shrug – even among EV fans.
Now, Daimler is pulling the Smart’s plug. After 2019, the Smart car is banished to regions of the world where it makes the most sense.
What Went Wrong for Smart in America?
Americans like to go big or go home. We like Big Gulps, Big Macs, and big-box stores. We drive big vehicles, we live in big houses, and we build big shopping complexes. In America, bigger is better, except when it comes to our increasingly obese and unhealthy population. That just results in big medical bills.
There is nothing new about this. Yet, just as the Great Recession struck in 2008, Daimler decided the Smart ForTwo would be perfect for Americans.
Initially, the timing appeared brilliant. A small, affordable, efficient commuter vessel with a jaunty personality and European flair would be just the thing for Americans clobbered by a Wall Street free-fall, stifling debt, a suffocating economy, and ballooning unemployment.
The party, fueled by rising real estate values and shady lending practices, was over. But Smart appeared ready to cash in, reportedly selling about 25,000 ForTwos in America in 2008. Then people stopped buying cars altogether.
Eventually, American economic winds shifted. People landed jobs. They paid down debt. And they started buying new vehicles again. But they were buying trucks and SUVs, just as they had been before, and in greater numbers thanks to historically cheap gas.
Even among small car aficionados, the quirky Smart ForTwo was a tough sell (technically, the smart fortwo, all lowercase, which certainly didn’t help). It had rear-wheel drive, a 3-cylinder engine mounted over the rear wheels, and a dual-clutch transmission (DCT). Lots of people don’t like DCTs, rear-drive is a liability in snow, and the engine’s location guaranteed almost non-existent trunk space.
Smart countered declining fortunes with the ForTwo Electric Drive. Essentially a golf cart, the Smart ED made even less sense to city dwellers because many of those people had nowhere to plug the car in to recharge it overnight.
A redesign did not help. Nor did elimination of gasoline models in favor of an all-electric lineup offering no more than 58 miles of range on a single charge. Nor did a lease payment of $179 per month with no money down. Nor did marketing obviously aimed at Millennials and Generation Z.
And so, after the 2019 model year, since Smart never went big, it is going home.