Smart Car - Good Idea, Poor Execution?

By Edward A. Sanchez | August 24, 2010
The history of the automobile is littered with ideas and vehicles that seemed like a good idea at the time, but ultimately failed because of poor execution, especially in the demanding U.S. market. Some of these vehicles even experience a brief period of success driven by the novelty factor, then slowly dwindle into oblivion once the early adopters have purchased their models, and the general public does not find them as enticing.A perfect example is the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. The Solstice and Sky collectively briefly out-sold the Mazda MX-5, their most direct competitor, in 2008. The sexy, curvy Solstice was a head-turner, without question. The more chiseled Sky looked to many like a mini C6 Corvette. Styling-wise, most agreed they put the comparatively conservative Mazda on the trailer. Objectively, the Solstice/Sky was a capable performer, matching or surpassing the MX-5's performance, especially in turbocharged GXP/Redline trim. In a brief racing series, the Solstice performed well.
But if you've ever been in one of these cars, and experienced them up-close, it's plain to see why their success was short-lived. The convertible top mechanism on these cars was fiddly and awkward, compared to the MX-5's simple and elegant one-handed top operation. Also, the GM twins had no trunk space to speak of, even with the top up. Top down? Forget it. The MX-5's admittedly small trunk space was not affected by the top being up or down. Also, in terms of the subjective sound and feel of the cars, the Solstice/Sky felt and sounded like a truck. As a matter of fact, the transmission was out of the Canyon/Colorado midsize trucks. The standard engine moaned unenthusiastically when revved, and hung onto revs between shifts, giving the drivetrain a lazy, crude feel. The turbo engine helped in terms of objective speed, but the character of the driving experience didn't improve appreciably. In contrast, the MX-5's engine and drivetrain, although objectively not as powerful, offered razor-sharp throttle response, and a lively, crisp, short-throw shifter, in addition to a better-finished, better-thought-out interior, top and trunk design. After more than 20 years of defining the segment, the MX-5 is still in production and going strong. The Solitice and Sky? Dead. To add insult to injury, both the cars' parent brands are also gone. Okay, I know I just went on a four-paragraph rant about the Solstice, but that's not what this blog is about. It's about the Smart car. Which many are starting to question if it's living up to its name. For its diminutive size, (nearly three feet shorter than a Mini Cooper) you would think it would get spectacular fuel economy, be far cheaper than other vehicles on the market, or offer outstanding handling and performance. In reality, it offers none of the above. Hybrids such as the Toyota Prius offer better fuel economy and significantly more practicality. The Volkswagen TDI, whether in hatchback Golf or Sedan/Wagon Jetta trim, likewise offer about the same fuel economy with much better overall practicality and comfort. Both the Prius and the VW offer significantly better acceleration and performance. Sure, they're both a little more expensive than a loaded Smart, but are literally almost twice the car. The jerky single-clutch automated manual has been universally panned by critics, and poorly-received by owners, for the most part. The three-cylinder 1.0 liter engine is an outdated design that offers relatively poor output and fuel efficiency for its size.
Improving the efficiency and refinement of the drivetrain alone would probably do wonders for the Smart's acceptance and popularity. But that should be the least of Smart's worries right now. A far bigger threat longer-term is the emergence of another pint-sized competitor from South Asia, the Tata Nano. In its home-market trim, the Nano hardly poses a threat to the relatively well-equipped ForTwo. But Tata is already preparing a better-equipped, more refined, and more powerful Nano for the European market, for a target price of between $6,500 and 8,000, or roughly half the price of a Smart ForTwo. Nobody is predicting or expecting the upgraded Nano will be a dragstrip demon, but simply by virtue of its four doors and four passenger capacity, the Nano will have an immediate advantage over the ForTwo. Likewise, nobody is expecting Lexus-like refinement or smoothness from this model. But Smart is hardly in a position to crow about refinement itself, as previously noted. So the score is currently Nano - 2, Smart - 0. Granted, this comparison is currently purely academic, because the Nano is not currently on-sale in the U.S. If it goes on sale at all, it would probably be calendar 2012 at the earliest. This timeframe, although brief, gives Smart a critical window of opportunity to address the shortcomings of the current ForTwo. Although it's highly unlikely that Smart will be able to match the Nano's predicted sub-$10,000 price point, short of moving production to a developing nation or other low-cost locale such as Eastern Europe or Latin America, it gives it time to source or develop a more efficient engine, and more refined transmission. For this class of vehicle, 0-60 times are not as paramount as MPG, and frankly, if objective performance in terms of acceleration doesn't change much, I don't think many potential customers will care, as long as there's a substantial improvement in fuel economy. 36 mpg city and 50 mpg highway should be the benchmarks. And replacing the jerky transmission with a smoother CVT or dual-clutch would go a long way toward making the ForTwo more palatable to the general public.
Ah...but if the Nano was the only competitor Smart had to look out for. No such luck. Toyota is about to sell a version of its iQ micro-compact in the U.S. market as a Scion. Roughly a foot longer than the ForTwo, the Scion features what Toyota calls "3+1" seating, and will be offered with a four-cylinder engine and CVT transmission. Official pricing has not been announced, but expect it to be in the neighborhood of the ForTwo. Predicted fuel economy will match or surpass the current ForTwo's figures. In the face of these impending competitors, don't expect the ForTwo's Euro-cuteness to carry it much further. At the end of the day, no amount of man-on-the-street demos, social media promotion, or website ads will compensate for an uncompetitive product. Smart needs to raise the bar significantly on its product attributes if it hopes to remain a viable product in the U.S. much longer.