Say farewell to the Smart car, the tiny two-seater Americans never really understood.
Daimler, the German auto giant, said it will stop selling the battery-operated Fortwo model in the United States and Canada after this model year. The decision was spurred by “a declining micro-car market,” said Robert Moran, director of corporate communications for Mercedes-Benz USA, which also is owned by Daimler. Moran also pointed to the high costs associated with certifying such a low-volume model.
It is a decision that comes as no surprise to many analysts, given its limited range — about 60 miles on a full charge — and consumers’ growing preference for SUVs. Plus, “smaller” does not always mean “greener” nowadays, thanks to a generation of SUVs with low gas mileage.
Smart cars “make sense when you have small roads and small places to park,” said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. “In the United States, where there’s plenty of room to maneuver your heavy-duty pickup truck on the way to work, it makes less sense.”
Granted, a roomier option does not have to be a pickup truck. Smaller SUVs such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 come with plenty of trunk and passenger space and a bit of a boost. Think of them as station wagons that are just a little higher off the ground, Fisher said.
The Smart car’s main selling point was it could whiz across short distances and squeeze through narrow spaces. Consider Europe, where the miniature models slide sideways and backward into parking spots or through skinny alleys. The American roadscape, meanwhile, is built to accommodate much larger cars and trucks, and parking spots are similarly scaled.
(Still, parking a Smart car is not easy for everyone. See Exhibit A.)
Plus, the car ownership rate in the nation’s largest urban centers (86 percent) is about 8 percentage points lower than it is elsewhere in the country (94 percent), according to data from the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey. About 30 percent of the nation’s households are located in those large urban centers.
Smart car posted its best domestic sales — nearly 25,000 vehicles — in 2008, when gas prices were high and incomes down, said Paul Waatti, manager of product analysis at AutoPacific, an automotive marketing research and consulting firm. A decade later, U.S. sales had dwindled below 1,200.
“In that same time period, SUVs have gotten smaller and more efficient,” Waatti said. He noted Toyota’s now-defunct Scion brand met a similar fate. Its “city car,” called the iQ, disappeared after only a few years in the United States.
In denser, urban areas, Americans also may be more likely to hail an Uber or Lyft before buying a Smart car — the Fortwo starts at roughly $24,000 — and absorbing those maintenance and insurance costs. But for those looking to get behind the wheel, Car2Go — which operates in seven cities in the U.S., plus many more worldwide — may be an enticing option. The company’s North American fleet is made up of Smart cars and other Mercedes-Benz vehicles. A spokesperson said Car2Go would not be affected by Daimler’s announcement.
Daimler has also announced plans to develop a new line of Smart electric cars at a factory in China. Sales of the new car are expected to start worldwide in 2022.
Americans’ embrace of SUVs has corresponded with a gradual shift away from sedans. In November, General Motors said it would stop making six models — forging ahead with pickups, SUVs and electric and autonomous vehicles. Ford also announced last year it would stop selling almost all sedans in the U.S. market.
For its part, Mercedes-Benz is building its own electric lineup in the U.S. and Canada with the new EQC in 2020, Moran said. Mercedes is marketing the car as the “first in what will be a growing family of all-electric vehicles.” Unlike the small Smart car, the EQC is an SUV.
All of which goes to say you do not have to shrink your car to shrink your carbon footprint.
“The whole ‘SUV equals gas-guzzler’ equation is pretty much out the window,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. “It’s not just giving up a Smart car and buying a Tahoe. There’s a lot of space in between.”
Christopher Ingraham contributed to this report.