I don’t usually editorialize on sites like this...but today I’m making an exception.

 

The smart fortwo is dying, at least in the US. Sales are not recovering, even as other car makers begin posting some pretty encouraging numbers...but the perception (maybe a wrong perception, but a widely held one nonetheless) is that Penske and Daimler are doing little to reverse this. Putting one’s hope in a car demo caravan going from town to town around the country is an exercise in futility. It looks (perception again) like the focus is simply on spending as little money as possible. I understand that every business, particularly those under financial stress, need to control expense...but at what cost? This car (at least the fortwo version) cannot survive here by selling only to us crazies who always wanted one. The problem is, anyone who fell in love with the idea of this car has already bought one. Now what? To survive (let alone prosper), the company has to begin appealing to the general population of buyers considering sub-compacts. smart ain’t doing that. Kevin Costner was wrong. Just because you build it does not necessarily mean they will come.

 

An all-electric version will help. Please get it here soon. smart can easily benefit from all the media noise about the Nissan Leaf and the swarm of similar cars to follow that is legitimizing all-electric operation in the public’s eyes.

 

As for the existing gasoline version, which I assume remains in the company’s plans, I am no marketing specialist, but I see what I see. Here are two commonly heard criticisms that I believe are not effectively being addressed.

 

- The tranny scares people. Hell, it scares me sometimes, and I love the car. I personally think its a great idea that has not been particularly well executed in the fortwo. The buyers this car will have to appeal to are not, by-and-large, performance drivers. They don’t want to have to think that far ahead... "Let’s see. Should I slip over to manual and downshift now so that when I see that truck heading toward me in the intersection, I won’t have to wait for the transmission to dither around deciding what to do?" There is a remedy available right now. A dual clutch transmission. A DCT can be integrated into the fortwo’s design economically. The new Ford Fiesta has one, and it hasn’t exactly bloated that car’s price.

 

- Fuel economy. You have no doubt noticed that we spend a lot of time defending the car’s mileage numbers. Why? Because the medium is the message, and people often expect to hear something more impressive. The car’s “extreme” size (not always seen as a positive in the eyes of most US car buyers, but that’s OK) implies other extremes people might like a  lot...such as...incredible fuel economy. But the critics are right. One might reasonably expect a car weighing less than 1900 lbs, with a three-cylinder engine, to generate more impressive numbers than it does. Yes, I know about what dedicated hypermilers are able to do with the fortwo, but smart knows you can’t sell the car based on that. Other sub-compact and even bigger cars are getting mileage virtually as good while carrying around bigger bodies and more weight. I can’t believe that Daimler (or Mitsubishi or whoever engine supply is outsourced to) cannot keep up competitively with power plant engineering.

 

I think there is a particular burden on Daimler and Penske to take the steps necessary to save this car. Either that, or just announce that it was a mistake and pull the plug. But do something. If the internal business culture is getting in the way, change it. Easier said than done, I know, but maybe still necessary. Looked what happened to GM when they did not or could not muster the will to change the company’s culture of arrogance and slowness of response.

 

You want to see what’s possible? Look at Hyundai. Yes, they market well, but the real key to their phenomenal success is their culture of fast, accurate corporate response to changing market demand.

 

smart....please do what needs to be done......

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It's obvious the smart is for a small percentage of the market. Look at any two-seater car, the market base is ~ 15% of the total personal vehicle market (don't know the numbers so don't quote me).
I think the biggest factor is two seats. Part of the reason I bought mine was because it only had two seats. Likely a big reason most people overlook it is because it only has two seats. You need to be single and uncaring about being flashy, or able to afford a second (or third) vehicle to have a smart. I know there are a few in the US with a smart as their only vehicle but it is a very small percentage. My children are grown with their own vehicles and Carlito is my second car (or should I say the Jeep is my 'other' car...)
I agree the marketing is lacking in areas but spending mass quantities on advertising, knowing that your actual fan base is very small, seems like a waste. Kinda like firing a shot gun to kill a fly. The people that like and/or want a smart know it's there and will pursue it if/when they can afford it.

Let's be careful out there,
Pops and Carlito
Hi Pops / Carlito,

I agree that the fortwo is a niche vehicle..and that's fine. It was never expected to be the next Toyota. But I would like it not to be the next Yugo. Even niche vehicles need to maintain some sales momentum, and smart's is dropping like a rock.
I do not believe that traditional advertising is the answer. There are too many people out there, who have never touched a smart who tell others that the car is too small, unsafe, can not go on the highways, cost too much (most who do not know think the car price starts in the mid 20's) is unsafe, and the list goes on. It us up to us as owners to educate people. In order to make a tradional commercial to get the "real" information out the commerical would have to be 5 minutes long, and there are still those who would not get it. How many have you met, who once they got inside the car, did not tell you that they were amazed at how roomy the car is. You can not portray that in advertising. We need to join clubs and so up in large groups to gain attention and do a show and tell with people so that they learn the truth. Them send them to your local dealer. The more we put out the truth the more cars will be sold. There are not many of us who do not love our cars and for me it is our only car. Penske needs to encourage owners to get together in social groups and be seen. The local dealerships also need to support local groups. The car salespersons who are not owners themselves do not grasp the concept of a unique car needs a unique approach to sales
Please notice that I did not advocate spending more money on advertising. You are right, I believe, is saying that more advertising in and of itself will not solve the problem. I think the problem is more deep seated. There is an image issue dogging the fortwo, and there are many channels besides advertising that are available to fix that.

As much as I admire the marketing behind Hyundai's rapid expansion in this country, they have backed that marketing up with product. It was not so long ago that Hyundai was a shrinking brand in the US, plagued by a reputation for quality problems. But their corporate management took notice and realized that they had better address the issue. They didn't abandon their idea of what a Hyundai should be...they just made it so damn good people couldn't ignore it. Today, they are enjoying a growth curve numerous other "smaller" manufacturers envy. If it came to their attention that a particular facet of their car was not popular, they changed it...fast. They didn't retreat into a defensive stance and simply try to justify what they were doing. Yes, what they did costs money. But look what that money has now earned them.

If anyone from smart is reading my comments, please understand that I know you may very well be doing things that I don't know about and haven't acknowledged. But if someone like me (who likes the car and pays a lot of attention to what is reported about it in the automotive and general media) is not getting the message, then consider whether what you are doing is working.
Your editorial completely ignores than smart USA is Dumping Millions into a collaboration with Nissan to bring a 5 door smart branded car here within the year. This will beat the other larger smart that MB and Renault plan on collaborating on by a couple of years.

This does not sound like the move of a company (Penske) that plans on going away any time soon.

And smart USA is trying everything they can to get the word out about the brand without spending traditional ad money. They are doing what they can to continue to create Buzz for the press to pick up on, thus giving them free advertising.

Lets see, This summer it was the smart ED press Push followed later in the summer by the smart Expressions program, then early October was the announcement of the Smart USA/ Nissan Collaboration. Next in late October came the Hello Kitty tie in. And most recently is the launch of the Campaign against Dumb, Mindless Consumption ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Sounds like they have been busy trying to get the word out. It also sounds like smart USA, not the folks in Europe, are doing all these things.

But in the end, nothing sells the car more than putting buts in the seats. It's the only way to help folks get over the misconception that the car is "small" on the inside. And that is what the street tour does on a daily basis.
The base price for all passions has gone up 1k for the 2011 model year ($500 for pure). Do you realize how much price will go up with a DCT?

And remember, they have to research, develop, and find a tranny that would fit. That alone would bring sticker up.

You want them to sell? Advertise.

People will get used to the quirky tranny.

And as fuel economy goes, it's not as simple as "smaller = more MPG".
Good discussion and jackb has some excellent points, as do the other posters. The issue is what can/will smart (Daimler) do with the 451 prior to the next generation Daimler/Renault version? My guess is nothing past the 2011 model refresh. The current 451 is effectively done so we can forget about any major mechanical changes like a new transmission. Where Daimler has to succeed is with the next generation car - it must balance the appeal of the smart with features to compete with other small cars. If not, it simply won't succeed against the Scion iQ, the Chevy Beat, Fiat 500, etc.

Just my .02, but there is a way to use the club idea and dealer support Richard mentions to amplify the Street Tour concept. There's nothing preventing a dealership from getting together with local owners and putting on several "Drive a smart" days. Why wait for the Street Tour which may never make it to a given location? Get the dealers on board with local owners and let interested people drive a smart and talk with real owners - it can work.


jwight said:
.

Just my .02, but there is a way to use the club idea and dealer support Richard mentions to amplify the Street Tour concept. There's nothing preventing a dealership from getting together with local owners and putting on several "Drive a smart" days. Why wait for the Street Tour which may never make it to a given location? Get the dealers on board with local owners and let interested people drive a smart and talk with real owners - it can work.
That sounds really clever...+1
HAHAHAHAHHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHHA snort. You don't know my dealer very well. I tried for months to get some dealer support/involvement but to no avail. I have even stopped going in to say hi and to see what they are up to. We did get the group together for the first drive here in Chicago but didn't really feel like we helped that much because we weren't involved from the start and then they moved the date but didn't tell us. If the mothership would only get involved we could probably have a better turnout at our monthly events and do more to help them get the word out.

Seems in spite of all efforts smart still clings to life.

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