It started with such feather-ruffling promise: when the smart City Coupe broke cover in 1998 it changed Europe’s streetscape with its tiny footprint, clever design, innovative engineering and cheeky attitude. It hit its target market and by 2001, with the cars only officially available in some Western European markets, smart sales were well over 100,000 units annually. By the end of 2003, the brand had continued to expand – with sales of the City Coupe and its twin the City Cabrio having commenced in a number of new countries including the right hand drive markets of Japan and Australia. Meanwhile the Roadster and Roadster-Coupe had also entered production utilising much of the City Coupe’s basic architecture to result in a cheeky and fun micro sports car that was a logical extension for the brand.
In 2004 the range grew yet again – the Forfour, platform shared with the Mitsubishi Colt and built alongside it in the Dutch Nedcar factory, was much more conventional than its brand siblings but still certainly looked like a deserving member of the smart family. The City Coupe and City Cabrio were meanwhile renamed the Fortwo to fit with the brand’s new naming policy.
Yet despite the growth of its range, smart’s sales peaked at just over 152,000 units in 2004, and have slumped since. The smart arm of DaimlerChrysler was struggling to turn a profit and some criticism in reviews and quality issues, particularly with the Roadster, had begun to surface. By the end of 2006 the range had been ‘restructured’ and production of the Forfour and Roadster had ended – after just two and three years respectively. The Formore micro SUV had also been in very advanced stage of development however it too was cancelled before it ever saw the light of day.
First attempt at growing the smart range was short lived
The slimmed down brand returned to its key product, launching a new model of the Fortwo in late 2006 with deliveries commencing in 2007. The 451 series Fortwo was significantly updated from the earlier (450) series, although it retained a number of its key features including the injection moulded body panels, ‘Tridion’ safety cell, automated manual transmission and three cylinder engine layouts – albeit with new motors featuring a larger 1 litre capacity. The new model was slightly longer, safer and more refined, but visually and technologically it was not a great leap from the previous model, its exterior traded some of its playfulness for some aggression and its interior became more austere, diluting some of the older car’s endearing personality in the process. It did, however, launch the smart brand in two key markets: the USA and China, yet despite this smart sales still dropped globally from the 150,000 mark in the mid 2000s to near 100,000 units by 2010. Rapid development in engine technology had seen some larger cars improve fuel economy to levels competitive with the smart, and its features and technology were no longer industry leading. Despite a very frugal diesel model and even the launch of an electric variant, in the space of 10 years the smart brand had moved from such excitement and promise to the wilderness.
This is why the new Fortwo and its Forfour sibling are vital for smart. The early signs are promising – rather than going it alone again, Daimler AG has entered a cooperation agreement with the Nissan-Renault Alliance, whose third generation Renault Twingo (a nameplate that is also looking to return to former glory) shares its platform and power units with the new smart twins. From a design perspective, smart has been less precious about the original fortwo, which has allowed them to make some real advances allowing the new cars to look much more modern than the outgoing Fortwo while still retaining some key smart design elements such as the ‘Tridion’ safety cell in contrasting colours, the triangular door handles and the wheel at each corner stance. The interior continues the theme with bright materials and fun shapes the highlight. So although the new smarts are less radical for their time than the original City Coupe was in 1998, the shared development costs mean less risk for Daimler Benz, and the slightly more conventional execution of the new Fortwo and Forfour might see them appeal to more of those crucial buyers outside Europe. With any luck, this will be the formula to secure smart’s future.
by Andrew Marshall