The Smart bet
Mercedes-Benz's plan to stop selling their microcar in the U.S. and Canada is the latest chapter in North America's troubled relationship with tiny cars
By MATT BUBBERS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, May 17, 2019 Print Edition, Page D1
Driving his tiny Smart fortwo felt like being in a fishbowl, Glenn Kolano remembers.
Not because the car was so small, but because everybody would stare at him through the glass as he drove.
"It would stop people in their tracks," said Kolano, a retired emergency-room nurse from London, Ont. "People didn't think it was legal. They questioned if it could go on [Highway] 401." Onlookers in big SUVs would lean out of the window to take pictures.
Kolano was among the first in Canada to buy a Smart fortwo, driving it off the lot in late 2004.
He and his wife each have one now; they've had eight in total.
"I thought it would be a great way to save the environment, and it seemed to be a very practical solution," Kolano said. He once drove from London to Miami on US$55 worth of gas, and could always find parking space, even in downtown Toronto. He put snow tires on in winter, and never missed not having all-wheel drive.
And yet, he wasn't surprised to see the news that Mercedes-Benz will stop selling the cars in the United States and Canada this year. The death of Smart is just the latest chapter in North America's troubled relationship with tiny cars.
"I'm just disappointed mainly, in all the people who could never grasp the idea of what the Smart car was all about. That's the sad part," Kolano said. "And now all of them are driving Ford F-150s and SUVs. What a waste."
Were we just not smart enough for the Smart car? Tiny cars offer an obvious solution to big problems such as climate change, traffic, lack of parking space and the high cost of car ownership.
It's a solution that worked in Japan, where frugal kei jidosha (light cars) make up about a third of new car sales.
Smaller cars exist now, unlike the self-driving fully electric shareable pods that automakers envision will someday save us.
SLIDING SALES Mercedes-Benz cited declining microcar sales and high homologation costs as reasons for pulling out of the market, despite having just launched the all-new thirdgeneration Smart in 2015. The move effectively kills the brand in Canada, although it will continue in other parts of the world.
Smart launched in North America in 2004. At that time, gas prices were starting to skyrocket to their highest levels since at least 1929, according to U.S. government data.
Annual sales of the Smart fortwo peaked in Canada in 2005 with more than 4,000 sold, according to GoodCarBadCar figures. The company discontinued the gasoline-engine Smart in 2017, leaving only the electric version in showrooms. Annual sales totalled just 264 cars in 2018. The U.S. market experienced a similar decline.
The Fiat 500 is hardly doing any better, and Toyota killed off its own microcar, the Scion iQ, in 2015.
"Utility and truck-body styles continue to increase in market penetration," said Robert Karwel, senior manager of the automotive division for J.D. Power in Canada. "There is just little interest in the sub-subcompact segment - for lack of a better term - in our part of the world."
Unlike in Europe, our cities don't necessitate such tiny vehicles - yet.
MICROCARS IN A BIG COUNTRY Smart was not the first company to try selling North Americans on the benefits of microcars, but the fact you've probably never heard of the other companies speaks to their failure.
"The microcar really came about after the Second World War in Europe," said Jeff Lane, director of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, which has an extensive microcar collection. "Most people were either walking or riding a bike; the microcar filled the need to have motorized transportation." The Bond Minicar, Messerschmitt KR200 and Isetta were cramped and shaped like gumdrops, but at least they were cheap and waterproof.
"Part of the reason people developed better mini-cars - the Fiat 500, Citroen 2CV and Mini - is that microcars weren't that great; they weren't that reliable," Lane said.
In the United States, microcars never sold in any kind of volume, despite the fact there were some American manufacturers, he explained.
One such company, Crosley, which also made radios and washing machines, built microcars before and after the Second World War. "The Crosley was a terrible car," Lane said. "Other companies, like Nash with the Metropolitan, dabbled in it, but the [sales] volume just wasn't there to make money."
"I'm surprised Smart stayed this long," he concluded.
Small cars struggle in North America in part because we tend to see cars as indicators of wealth and status. And, in that context, as we've written before in these pages, small cars look like failure.
This bigger-is-better ethos goes back to the beginning of the automobile in the United States, said Ken Cummings, professor of transportation design at Humber College.
"One of the most coveted cars in 1920 was the giant Locomobile," he said. "By the 1970s, luxury was personified by a 472 cubicinch [7.7-litre] engine on a 19foot [5.8-metre] long frame."
"Who has ever heard of the small American Bantam, Crosley or the King Midget?" Cummings asked. Those microcars disappeared into automotive obscurity while Cadillac and Lincoln roll on making ever-larger SUVs.
"Only high gas prices and long fill-up lines make us think small," he said. We will regret not having cars such as the Smart if (or when) gas hits $2 a litre, unless electric or hydrogen cars suddenly become ubiquitous.
THE PRICE OF JOY What most people don't know about very small cars - because most people buy bigger cars - is that they're incredibly fun to drive. To date, the 2016 Smart fortwo was the most gloriously entertaining car I've ever driven in a city. It's 0.9-litre engine puffed out 89 horsepower. In a car weighing 900 kg, about half that of a typical SUV, it turns out that's all the power you could want.
As cheap as they were to run - it sipped fuel like a hybrid - the Smart wasn't as affordable as postwar microcars.
In 2016, the gas-powered Smart started at $17,300. That's a lot for a car with only two seats, especially when you could get a four-door Toyota Corolla for roughly the same price.
Roughly 87 per cent of people who drive to work do so alone, according to 2016 Statistics Canada data.
But most people, if they're spending $20,000 on a car, will also need it to carry more than two people on weekends, holidays and occasional errands.
THINKING SMALL We rarely reward automakers for radical new ideas. Maybe the Smart car was just too weird for most people. BMW's brilliantbut-strange i3 hasn't found the sales success the company hoped for, at least not in North America.
It's tempting to think these are cars ahead of their time, but maybe their time will never come. Uber exists now, as do carshare subscriptions and who knows what else in the future.
Why, exactly, bigger cars are always better is a question that goes beyond simple practicality to the core of our collective psyche. The answer is about status and freedom, it's psychosexual, it's the prisoner's dilemma, it's practically manifest destiny.
"I had never even thought of that ... that there must be something wrong if I drive a little car," Kolano said. He's heard quips from co-workers about his "clown car," but it doesn't bother him. He thought younger buyers would take to the Smart, but they didn't.
Kolano says he hopes to keep driving his Smart for the rest of his life.
"I guess I'm not mainstream," he said.
Neither was the Smart car.
The Smart brand was launched in North America in 2004. Sales of the Smart fortwo peaked in Canada the next year, with more than 4,000 sold.
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Microcars have a long history in Europe, coming about in the aftermath of the Second World War.
As cheap as they were to run, Mercedes-Benz's Smart cars weren't as affordable as some of their postwar forebears - and with only two seats, that made them something of a tough sell. What many don't realize, however, is that they're incredibly fun to drive.