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Britsmart

The Future of Smart in America

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September 28, 2011

By Scott Evans

If you've been following sales numbers over the past few years as we have, you'd be forgiven for thinking Smart's time in the U.S. is running short. The company is believed to have sold fewer than 4000 cars so far this year, though specific data is hard to find. Daimler, parent company of Smart and Mercedes-Benz, hasn't bothered to include year-to-date totals in its monthly sales reports, nor any data on 2010 performance relative to 2011. Why? Because Smart's sales continue to spiral downward by double digits every month. You'd think that would mean the end is nigh, but Smart's refusing to go down in the U.S. market without a drawn-out fight.

Click to view GallerySpeaking with executives at Mercedes-Benz USA, which has recently taken over control of Smart USA from original importer Penske, Motor Trend learned that the micro-car brand is far from finished in the U.S. With the full backing of the German mothership, Smart is planning to reinvent itself in America and return to profitability. But while there's a plan in place, it's a long road ahead.

The plan starts with marketing. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a Smart commercial on TV? Your memory isn't to blame -- there's never been one. According to Mercedes-Benz, Penske simply didn't have the resources at its disposal to mount the kind of massive media campaign needed to sell cars. Mercedes on the other hand does, which is why you'll start seeing a lot more Smart advertising in the near future, beginning with a major ad campaign that started in mid-September. TV commercials will appear on all the major networks during a number of popular scripted, reality, and talk shows.

The point of the ad campaign, we're told, is not to re-educate the market about Smart cars, but rather to expose people to them. Brand awareness, Mercedes says, is very low right now, and dealers say they haven't seen any advertising in three years. According to Mercedes, most car buyers don't know what Smart is, and those who do don't necessarily have the right idea about the brand. Judging by the comments on our last Smart Fortwo test, Motor Trend readers think the car only sells in San Francisco, but Mercedes tells us that many Smarts are actually sold in Texas, of all places. Smart is hoping to send a message of value and downsizing as the buying public begins to embrace small cars and restrained spending.

Click to view GalleryAnother aspect of the plan comes on the dealer side of things. Mercedes cut loose 30 percent of Smart's dealer network when it took over the brand, dropping all dealers that weren't also Mercedes dealers. As of now, Smart is down to just 50 U.S. dealers, though that number will go back up to anywhere between 80 and 100 dealers in the near future, and all of them will also be Mercedes dealers. The idea is similar to Hyundai's plan for Genesis to have a dealer-within-a-dealer selling Smart cars as their own brand, not as tiny Benzes. They won't just be sold, either. Now that Mercedes is calling the shots, Smart will begin leasing gasoline cars for the first time. Meanwhile, the company is looking for ways to bring down the lease price on the Smart ED electric car from the current $600 per month rate.

Mercedes is hoping that this plan will get Smart back to sales growth in 2012, though given 2011's low sales, it's not a lofty goal. Next year will also see the launch of the third-generation Fortwo as a 2013 model based on the Forvision concept that just debuted in Frankfurt. The update as we understand it will be mostly cosmetic, but third-generation electric models will feature increased range and performance and, if all goes to plan, will actually be for sale and not just for lease. Dealers will have to make do with that for another three years or so until an all-new car debuts. That product, we hope, will feature some big updates, as we've found the current car lacking in a few areas, though Mercedes insists that the opinions of automotive journalists don't reflect those of customers, who apparently aren't complaining at all about the transmission.

Mercedes-Benz is working closely with its Smart dealers to craft a new awareness for the brand, one it hopes will get sales back on track. How well it works will depend on how effective the message is as much as gas prices and the country's economic woes. Beyond the short-term, though, Smart's future in America is still unclear and will depend heavily on future product we haven't seen yet.

Source: http://www.motortrend.com/features/auto_ne...art_in_america/

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How well it works will depend on how effective the message is as much as gas prices and the country's economic woes.

"Perception is realty."

Smart's message will not be effective until they discover a feature of this car that actually resonates with the American consumer. The only one I can visualize at this time is our ability to customize/modify the car's performance to exceed that with which the car is delivered from the dealership.

They need to offer:

Turbo and engine displacement options, including a diesel!

Sports performance chip

Sports/lowering springs an dampeners

Wide tires and flash rims

Evil-looking paint work

Upgrade handling package/sway bars

Transmission upgrade (dual-clutch?) options

These are what will make the car sexy to Americans, not it's decent-but-so-so gas mileage and funky looks. I think the car's appeal in those categories has pretty much been exhausted already.

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I agree with what he said about the transmission. I don't find anything wrong with the transmission and can't figure out why many journalists do. I mean seriously, a standard transmission that shifts by itself...what the heck are they complaining about. Its probably just me but I doubt i could shift it any smoother. Just sayin....

Edited by John & Angela

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As a standard transmission, I couldn't agree with you more. But they are marketing it as a automatic transmission, and as an automatic transmission it is lousy.Roy

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I think I read somewhere they are calling it "smartshift" in their new ads.

Edited by Z06-LITE

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As a standard transmission, I couldn't agree with you more. But they are marketing it as a automatic transmission, and as an automatic transmission it is lousy.Roy

Well thats just dum. I never paid attention. It is so obvious it is a manual or standard transmission. I guess it would be accurate to call it an automatically shifting/clutching standard transmission...but thats kinda hard to say. :)

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isn't it a bit of a statement on north american auto journalism that the editors of these articles don't/can't figure this ( transmission ) out and call it what it really isor are they purposely being obtuse ?

Edited by cadillacman

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The confusion is smart's own fault. They changed the perfectly good six-speed sequential configuration into a PRND shifter in order to offer the Americans something they would recognise.

They disguised a perfectly serviceable automated manual transmission as a North American automatic. And now they wonder why the American reviewers all say the transmission doesn't meet their expectations. No surprise there.

Edited by bilgladstone

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The confusion is smart's own fault. They changed the perfectly good six-speed sequential configuration into a PRND shifter in order to offer the Americans something they would recognise.

USDOT requirement, so you can't blame smart. But I wish smart Canada had kept the old SeDrive unit......

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smart 450 shifter.

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USDOT requirement, so you can't blame smart. But I wish smart Canada had kept the old SeDrive unit......

I am fairly sure the PRND is only needed for automatic transmissions in the US. The US could have had the SeDrive unit.

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The confusion is smart's own fault. They changed the perfectly good six-speed sequential configuration into a PRND shifter in order to offer the Americans something they would recognise.

They disguised a perfectly serviceable automated manual transmission as a North American automatic. And now they wonder why the American reviewers all say the transmission doesn't meet their expectations. No surprise there.

I think you missed the point about journalists being fooled rather than technical neanderthals being fooled.

MB did try to mislead people, but the journalist should have outed them.

And the canadian journalists were no better, even before the PRNDL

Edited by cadillacman

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Hmm... "technical neandertals" is a fair description of many automotive "journalists." My expectation of them is not that high ;)

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I am fairly sure the PRND is only needed for automatic transmissions in the US. The US could have had the SeDrive unit.

The 450s that G&K converted had PRND indicators added! Thanks to DOT.....

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The display has DRN or DNR added beside the gear indicator section. There is no park position.

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In 2007 when I reserved my 2008 smart fortwo Passion Coupé on-line, my wife thought I was crazy. After test driving a car in June 2007 during a road show event near Boston, my wife began to understand why I was interested in the smart. Over the past 3 ½ years and over 43,000 miles (69,200km), we have grown to love the smart and I even surprised myself how much I have come to enjoy my smart since my previous car was a Mazda RX-8. Driving around Southern Maine my smart is still a rarity and continues to draws, looks, smiles, thumbs-up, and many questions when I stop at a store or for gas.I am very pleased to hear Mercedes is committed to the smart brand in the USA. My advice to help the brand grow (beyond the advertising which was sorely needed) is to increase the servicing network. I drive 80 miles (128km) from Maine to Lynnfield, MA to the nearest smart center for servicing by a trained Technician and have done so for every scheduled maintenance need. Even if Mercedes did not wish to add more smart centers at this point, if they would invest in training one (1) Service Technician at every Mercedes Dealership in America on how to service a smart car, I believe that would help the brand grow. I have two Mercedes Dealers with a 35 minute drive from my house and that would make routine service much more accessible. I am hoping in the next few years to purchase a smart fortwo Electric Drive, and that would make the need for more local servicing even greater because of the range of the electric car.News has already begun to spread about the 2012 Scion IQ coming the US starting this month, and most of the early reviews tend to compare it to the smart and how much better 3+1 seating and a CVT are than the smart. I disagree and feel smart should extol the virtues of the fortwo as compared to the IQ. For example, over the past three years I have had only myself in the car about 95% of the time, and can only count on one hand the number of times I wish I could have taken more than two in the car, so I see no need for a back seat. I prefer to have the available cargo space. The visibility from the smart is great, and I have already heard negative reviews about the IQ upward visibility around traffic lights because the driver seat sits farther back than the passenger seat. There have been times I have backed into a curb to park my smart, the IQ being longer would make that option awkward at best. The plastic body panels on my smart have saved many a parking lot incident, the steel body on the IQ will be very susceptible to dents in similar situations. Last but not least for Maine is Winter driving, my smart is one of the best cars I have ever owned in the snow, and having the paddle shifters I feel I can always be in the best gear for the conditions without taking my hands off the wheel and the rear engine/rear wheel drive is a great combination.The bottom line for smart to compete is to promote its virtues compared to other cars like the IQ and not to focus on one thing like the transmission (which I have no problem with by the way).Just my thoughts. ;)

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A great write up!!!

''over the past three years I have had only myself in the car about 95% of the time, and can only count on one hand the number of times I wish I could have taken more than two in the car, so I see no need for a back seat.''

Toatally agree!

In fact smart used to say that the average number of people in a car is 1.2, they were generous and provided seating for 2.0 :D

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I so rarely have a passenger that I have been thinking about removing pasenger seat altogether!

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