The observant European tourist has no doubt taken notice of the comically small Smart cars zipping about the continent. Originally introduced to Europe in 1998, the Smart car has been busily migrating westward. The Smart fortwo model hit American markets in January of 2008, with a heretofore unheard of fuel efficiency of 33 city / 41 highway miles to the gallon, and an MSRP of under $12,000. Why, then, have American sales of the sprightly little vehicles remained lackluster? With gas prices shooting skyward, a cost effective and fuel efficient alternative seems like it would be an excellent choice. Is American culture at fault, or is the American version of the Smart car simply not as intelligent as its Old World cousin?
Reception in Europe
Praised by city drivers and environmental enthusiasts alike, the Smart car received a welcome reception in Europe, with sales in its first year of availability exceeding expectations and demanding immediate acclaim. In a continent of tiny roads where gas prices ranged from about $6 to $10 (or two to three times as much as in America), an equally tiny car with an excellent fuel economy was a welcome addition to the vehicle lineup (4).
Reception in the United States
Unlike its predecessor, the American Smart car never took off with the same ferocity. Initial excitement at the novelty of the vehicle drove sales for a short time, but the fervor was unsustainable in a market suddenly inundated with small cars with comparable fuel economy, like the Chevy Aveo or the Honda Fit. Penske Automotive Group (PAG), the original American distributor of the Smart brand, lost $16 million in its SmartUSA division in 2010. After such a profound loss, PAG gave the rights to sell Smart brand cars back to Smart’s parent company, Daimler AG, ensuring that now only Mercedes-Benz dealers distribute the vehicles in the US (5). The popularity of large cars in America may also be to blame for the stunted sales; not only does American culture tend to praise bigger as better, but the implication of an accident between a giant SUV and a tiny Smart car presents a frightening image, regardless of whether the car meets American safety standards.
The American Difference
Due to underwhelming sales, there are fewer models of Smart car now available in the United States. European versions include the Smart fortwo pulse, passion, and BRABUS, all in both a coupé and cabrio models. In America, choices are limited to the Smart fortwo pure coupe, passion coupe, and passion cabriolet. These models must meet American emissions standards, and the design changes necessary to accomodate these standards may be responsible for the significantly reduced fuel efficiency. A European Smart car will get between 20% and 30% better mileage. Overall, the Smart car’s lack of popularity in the United States stems from a variety of conditions, but the most likely culprits are: its less efficient emissions-standard redesign; its vast array of recently designed non-hybrid small car competitors; the American perception of the possible safety concerns of driving such a small car in a sea of SUVs; and the less dire state of gas prices in the states as compared to Europe. Perhaps the Smart car will take off as American environmental consciousness grows, but more likely it will remain a distinctly European phenomenon.