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A Smart Fortwo Electric Drive by Mercedes-Benz is displayed during the Frankfurt auto show. (RALPH ORLOWSKI/Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)
A Smart Fortwo Electric Drive by Mercedes-Benz is displayed during the Frankfurt auto show. (RALPH ORLOWSKI/Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

The Green Highway

A Smart restart for Mercedes-Benz Add to ...

Mercedes-Benz just won’t give up on the Smart car.

I like the idea of a tiny, fuel-sipping, two-seat city runabout, but it’s been nothing but a headache for the German luxury car giant since day one. Sales of the Smart have fizzled badly in the United States but, rather than walk away, Mercedes is “relaunching” the car with a $30-million media campaign.

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A little history first: in the late 1980s, the makers of the Swatch brand of watches came up with the bright idea of an inexpensive little car that you’d buy off the rack like a watch. After shopping it around, Swatch finally ended up with Daimler as a partner in 1994. The partnership did not go well. Swatch wanted to call it the Swatchmobile and Daimler said no way. An assembly plant was built in France, which opened in 1997, but the cars that came out of it needed a big redesign to be stable on the road. Daimler put up the money and Swatch headed for the exits.

The first Smart hit the road in Europe in October, 1998. There were big plans for a four-model lineup – two-seaters, four-seaters, a little sports car and so on – but the company did nothing but lose money. Daimler took over the whole mess in 2006 and persistently carried on.

The Smart came to Canada in 2004 and, since then, about 20,000 have been sold here. Sales maxed out at 4,080 cars in 2005 and last year did half that number. In the United States, the Smart was launched in 2008 just as U.S gasoline prices were headed for $4 a gallon. I thought it was going to be a home run.

I drove one around Silicon Valley when they first came out and traffic stopped in the streets as people took a closer look. In that first year, Daimler sold 24,622 Smarts in the U.S. and it appeared the gamble of launching a two-seater in the land of mammoth SUVs was going to pay off. But in 2009, sales dropped to 14,595. Last year, the number plunged to 5,927 and this year up to Sept. 1 it was a miserable 3,288 sales nationwide.

Yet Daimler didn’t give up and go home. Instead it’s giving it one last try by going back to square one.

It has dumped the Penske organization as U.S. distributor and have bravely launched a campaign to convince Americans that un-big is good. They’re pitching Smarts as an alternative to big cars and to bigness in general. The tag line in the ads is, “The space-saving, eco-friendly, totally unique Smart. Un-big. Un-car.”

The Smart is a great little car for buzzing around town but I think it’s way too expensive. By the time you’ve loaded on a few options, you’d be paying 20 grand plus tax for a vehicle slightly larger than a golf cart. It looks like an $8,000-to-$9,000 vehicle to me but I guess you can’t build anything in Europe at that price. In the United States, the Smart will be relaunched with a base price of $12,490. In Canada, it’s $13,999.

In North America, the demand is for SUVs and trucks. I’d like to see a swarm of Smarts or other similar sized mini-cars in the cities, which would take up far less space and fuel. What would make it happen? Gasoline at $2 a litre? $3? More?

In Frankfurt, I saw the new electric Smart car – which is made with lots of plastic to reduce the weight and thus increase the range. It has a transparent, infrared-reflective film on the windows and lots of insulation. The less juice you use for heating and air conditioning the farther you’ll go on the battery. Nice concept but it would be unbelievably expensive for such a tiny, Euro-built buggy.

So let’s see if Merc’s brave last stand with the Smart can convince Americans to downsize. It hasn’t worked with hamburgers, but maybe it will for personal transportation. After all, if it could sell 25,000 a year in a market of 10 million, Daimler would consider it a big (or is that an un-big?) success.

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