25 June 2007

Is the smart Too Smart for the US?

The smart [the all-lowercase name is almost as irritating as Saturn's all-uppercase names, and will not be repeated throughout the rest of this post], a diminutive "city car" produced by Daimler, is going to make its official US sales debut in the first quarter of 2008, to be sold by United Auto Group, a large dealership chain owned by Roger Penske. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the US availability of this car; the official website at http://www.smartusa.com/ even is so kind as to provide a way for interested owners to "reserve" a 2008 Smart for just $99.

Although the reservation fee is refundable at any time, and the company claims that the fee and reservation system are there to "gauge interest" in the car, it sounds to me that it's arrogant at best, and a scam at worst. How does committing $99 - in what is not even really a commitment, because you can get your money back, and they don't have to sell you a car if they don't have enough - really gauging interest? Plus, the "deposit" is less than 1% of the $12,000 base price of a Smart. So basically, Smart expects buyers to pay $99 for the privilege of being contacted if a Smart car is available for purchase.

As of early June, UAG announced that they had over 20,000 Smart "Insiders" who paid $99 to be on the sort of wait list...so Smart is now holding almost $2 million for basically doing nothing. I'd like someone to give me $2 million for a little while. I won't even touch the principal, and if I invested it in a mutual fund that earned 10% per year, I'd be making six figures without lifting a finger. Sweet.

Smart expects to produce about 16,000 ForTwos for sale in the US for the 2008 model year, and I can see them meeting or even exceeding that goal, but is this really a car that's going to succeed beyond core urban centers like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or Miami? Everything I've read about them has said that they're surprisingly roomy inside for two passengers, but lack luggage space, and give off a vibe of feeling a little too close to the road and surrounding traffic, without much sheet metal between you and them.

For a quick run to the grocery store, or for simple urban parking, they seem like a neat idea, if perhaps just a novelty. They'll get pretty good gas mileage (over 40 miles per gallon, even without the benefit of hybrids or diesels) and crash tests have been successful in them because of their innovative engineering. But how many Americans, who pretty consistently are in love with 1) large vehicles, and 2) fuel economy, as long as it requires no sacrifices in vehicle size, comfort, or engine power will be willing to pay $12,000 for an 8.8 foot long, 1600-pound "city car," when most Americans live in large suburbs and do not have to worry about urban parking or maneuverability? I think the Smart requires too many sacrifices - namely, interior space, engine power, and perceived occupant protection - to be a huge success in the US.


Darkender said...

I've always wondered what kept 'smart cars' off the streets. They're fairly popular in European cities where the streets are smaller and the buildings are closer together. I've been lucky enough to see one smart car crusing the residential streets in Dallas, but judging by the pink paint-job it looked like the owner treated it as a novelty and not a means of transportation.

69Firebird400 said...

Word was that DaimlerChrysler originally intended to sell them in the US at (or near) the time of their launch in Europe and Canada, then scrapped the plans at the last minute.

I've never seen one "in the wild" but have seen them at auto shows before. I just don't think they fit in well with US expectations for what a car is or should be. And 40 mpg plus is pretty good, but there are other larger, more comfortable choices that can meet that number as well. I'd be more impressed with 60 plus mpg.

Mags said...

There's tons of them up here- they fit in perfectly in the urban environment, and I think they'll be a big hit in the coastal US cities.