Smart Finally Made A Car Americans Would Buy So Of Course America Can’t Have It

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Smart’s newest car, the #1 small SUV with up to 422 horsepower, is finally getting out into reviewer hands. As I witness the rebirth of Smart from afar, I find myself a bit baffled. Smart has finally achieved what it planned to do for the American market. The new Smart #1 is an affordable electric SUV with a stupid amount of power for a pretty reasonable price. By all accounts it seems to be perfect for America, yet Smart seems afraid to give us another shot.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I can probably safely call myself one of Smart’s biggest fans. I fell in love with the brand at 14-years-old and a 2012 Fortwo was my second car ever and my first new car. I still have that car today, and it’s been as reliable to me as a best friend. Nowadays, I may be 19 or 20 (or is it 21?) cars, motorcycles, and buses deep, but my Smarts are still a highlight of my collection.

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Mercedes Streeter

I mean, a full 25 percent of my fleet are Smarts and I named myself after Smart’s parent company. And I’m not done, as I want to add a Roadster, Crossblade, Forfour and more to my collection. I have this silly dream of convincing Mercedes-Benz to sell me a Crosstown concept or one of the ultra-rare Formore SUVs.

Sadly, America didn’t have enough enthusiastic people buying Smarts. After just a single good year of sales in 2008, Smart struggled until Mercedes-Benz finally pulled the plug in 2019. There are fewer than 100,000 Smarts on American roads, and it appears that the brand won’t be coming back anytime soon.

Smart’s Failure

As much as it pains me to say so, I don’t blame Americans for not piling into Smart showrooms. The only Smart America got, the Fortwo, was a cool concept wrapped in an undesirable package. The dent-resistant plastic panels didn’t just make parking lot dings a thing of the past, but their design allowed owners to change their car’s color in as little as three hours. The full panoramic roof was ahead of its time, and it even sported a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration. Even the contrasting colors between the panels and the safety cell are a design element that works so well.

Unfortunately, these tricks were packaged into a car that Americans found unappealing. While the SUV and pickup truck reigned on the road, Smart USA wanted Americans to buy a two seat city car. That alone would have made for a battle for sales, but that city car came with a controversial transmission and an engine that wasn’t that economical. The wild part is that Smart did have an incredibly economical diesel engine (mine gets 70 mpg), but Smart USA felt that this engine didn’t have enough ponies for Americans.

In 2014, Smart unveiled the third-generation of the Fortwo. The new car was promising; it ditched the slow transmission and was based on a platform shared with the Renault Twingo III. This meant that Smarts got faster, smoother, more comfortable, and in Europe, an option for four doors with the Forfour. Tepid sales data suggests that the new cars were perhaps not enough. In 2019, Mercedes-Benz sold a 50 percent stake in Smart to Geely to help reboot Smart.

The New Smart

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It was confirmed early on that the first new vehicle of the relaunched Smart would be an SUV. That wasn’t surprising at all to me. Back in 2006, Smart recognized that building an SUV was going to be a way to be successful in certain markets. Remember how I said that I want a Formore? The Formore was supposed to be the launch vehicle for Smart’s United States effort. The company went through all of the work developing the thing, only to run out of money right before turning the lights on at the factory.

Now, 16 years later, with the help of Geely, Smart finally put some SUVs on the road. The Smart #1 is an SUV for the Twitter generation. No, really. The name is “hashtag 1” and the name is supposed to make you think about what’s trendy on social media.

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If you can get past that, the SUV seems pretty darn neat. The Smart #1 is built on Geely’s Sustainable Experience Architecture (SEA) modular electric vehicle platform. And at current exchange rates, Europeans can pay $32,500 to get a 14 feet-long electric SUV that seats five, puts down 268 horses to the rear wheels and delivers a zero to 60 mph time in 6.6 seconds. And thanks to the 66 kWh lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese battery, it has a WLTP range of 273 miles.

That makes the Smart pretty competitive. For example, a Volkswagen ID.4 Pro has an EPA range of 280 miles, or 324 miles on the WLTP cycle. What you lose in range you gain in power, as the Smart is two seconds faster to 60 mph with 67 more horses.

And if you’re feeling really frisky, Smart offers an even faster version of the #1. For an additional equivalent of about $10,000, the Smart #1 Brabus offers an incredible 422 horsepower through the addition of a 154-hp front motor. This results in a 0-60 time of 3.8 seconds and as Car and Driver reports, it’s enough power to spin all four wheels on launch.

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Even if you count the raucous Smart Roadster Brabus V6 Biturbo (which wasn’t a production car) it’s the fastest Smart ever built. The #1 Brabus can blow past 60 mph before my diesel Fortwo can hit 20 mph. Both the base #1 and the Brabus top out at 112 mph, which is pretty nutty for a car with a Smart badge. Opting for the Brabus does mean a lower 248-mile range, but with that kind of performance that could be forgiven.

Even crazier is the handling, which Car and Driver said was “like a naughty puppy, it really sulks in corners, where the traction-control has to battle to keep any level of discipline; we frequently encountered both understeer and oversteer in the same bend.” All of this is incredibly fascinating and pretty silly, but in a good way. It makes me wish I had a passport just so I can drive one. Maybe I could convince Mercedes-Benz to let me take one on a ‘Ring lap?

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Reading and watching reviews of the #1, it sounds like Mercedes-Benz and Geely also made it a pleasant car to be in, too. The suspension is said to be soft, and the fit and finish inside are apparently good, too. I like how the HVAC vents have a neat ambient LED glow. There’s nice tech, too, from a head-up display, a heat pump for extreme weather operations, a level 2 driver assist system, and even automatic parking.

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Though, at least in the test cars, apparently the infotainment system is a bit wonky. Car and Driver found misspellings and that the button that appeared to turn on stability-control actually turned it off. A reviewer at Electrifying found the infotainment system, which uses a bunch of widgets and didn’t have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, to be confusing:

Again, I love all of this. But here’s where I get disappointed. If you removed the badges from this car, it’s not really identifiable as a Smart. Geely and Smart tried to nod at the past by having a contrasting color for the floating roof, but that’s not really distinctive. Other cars have a similar a floating roof design. And it’s sort of the same inside. The LEDs are cool, but nothing new. In the past, Smart interiors utilized weird shapes, fabrics, and bright colors. Here? Not so much.

And this is intentional. Smart has decided to shake off the playful image for a premium look and feel. Weirdly, while this disappoints me, I bet it would be perfect for America.

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Here is an electric SUV that seems to offer good performance for a decent price. And while a Smart badge would normally mean subjecting yourself to weirdness, the #1 actually seems pretty normal. Small electric SUVs are selling great in America right now, just check out the ID.4’s sales record. It seems to me that Smart is leaving an opportunity on the table.

And it gets even better. Last year, I reported that Smart plans on making more than one SUV. The SUV thought to be the Smart #2 has been spotted testing in China, and it looks like one of those “SUV coupe” things that automakers are making nowadays. Sadly, despite Smart being reborn as an SUV maker, the company currently has no plans for a U.S. return. Instead, it’s just for Europe and China. Personally, I hope someone sees the potential here. These seem like Smarts that Americans would definitely buy.

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25 Responses

  1. Two being problems — 1 — made in China. My sister and brother in law were left stranded when their garage gave them a Chinese cherry (stupid name) while their car was worked on.
    The bolt holding the main drive pulley for all the assessors like the alternator, was basically made of paste, and broke, leading to what doctors call multiple organ failure.
    What is the difference in price between a proper automotive quality bolt and one made out of paste? Couple of cents, but which one did they go for?
    2) Battery is a bit big. New research from France’s energy watchdog shows that cars with batteries over 60 kwh need to be run for over 100,000 km before they are cheaper to run and more environmentally friendly than diesels. Basically cars with batteries over that are bad for the planet and your wallet.

    Incidentally where are the advances in battery tech we were promised. I remember reading 20-30% increases in efficiency every three to four years…. The last big one was 2017, (Renault introduced new cooling systems) and since then we wait, and wait.
    Could it be they were lying?

  2. How tall is this? It almost seems more like a hot hatch than an SUV.

    I would have this on my comparison list if we could get it, which I could never say about any Smart before today.

  3. Too bad we’re not getting it over here 🙁

    I also like the first-gen forfour more than I should. They should’ve sold that over here, too. It came in cool colors, and you could even get an orange interior.

    Their lineup needed to be more than just one car, especially if the only car int he lineup is a tiny 2-seater.

    The fixed glass roof kind of sucks. They made a sunroof that actually opens, but it’s very rare, and I don’t even know if that option even made it over here.

  4. America would have bought the Mk2 ForFour, too. Well, in some numbers – probably would have performed comparably to the Mirage, which, hey, would have been pretty good volume for Smart. But, Daimler couldn’t figure out a way to federalize it profitably, and also decided the Smart brand in North America should be exclusively associated with the original 2-seater lineup and not branch off into other segments to confuse the messaging

  5. I like the vehicle, but I really think they squandered their whole unique and funky vibe. They got rid of all the character, most notably the tridion cell, and made it look nothing like a smart car. I don’t think it’s ugly, I just think it’s not the best direction for smart. I think it would sell well in america and would honestly be a pretty compelling car, so long as it wasn’t under the smart badge. People will always and forever associate the smart brand with small, quirky little cars, and an electric upscale SUV just doesn’t feel right for the brand, especially if it’s missing the fun styling of previous smarts.

  6. They need to bring back the Smart Roadster and add in the drive system for the Smart #1 Brabus. And the car, being a Smart, would be best kept small and narrow, which could contribute to a low frontal area to help keep drag down. If they streamline the aerodynamics enough and shoot for a drag coefficient on par with a Hyundai Ioniq 6, they could get by with a small 30-ish kWh battery to get close to a 200 mile range and probably keep the weight to somewhere near a Miata as a result of the small battery. So basically, aim for 2/3 the mass and 2/3 the overall aero drag of a Tesla Model 3, and they’ll get 2/3 the energy consumption per mile.

    With 422 horsepower in a 2500-ish lb package, this thing would totally rip. AND because of it being electric, you could have storage space in the back comparable to a Hyundai Elantra hatchback of VW Golf, making it very practical as far as two-seaters would go.

    I bet if the price could be kept under $30,000 USD, it would sell more than expected. Especially if its performance was faster than cars costing 10x as much.

    1. Meant to say Roadster Coupe. What I envision is a sort Smart interpretation of a Ferrari 250 Breadvan, with a focus on aero efficiency and weight reduction. Mid motor, batteries built into the floor, AWD. The entire rear space could haul shit, and the car itself could haul ass.

  7. Here’s a thought…….does the US 25 years old import rule apply to electric driven cars? No emissions, to be concerned with, and I’m sure they have all the air bags and other safety paraphernalia needed, so what’s to keep them out?

    1. If they weren’t federalized—i.e. put through the formal safety and emissions certification processes that the US uses, which are similar but not identical to the ones in Europe, the 25-year rule applies.

      That’s what’s so frustrating about it—it’s not that there aren’t lots of perfectly good cars that could pass testing over here no problem, it’s just that the testing hasn’t been done. It’s expensive to do (it involves crashing a bunch of cars, just for a start) so if a manufacturer isn’t planning to sell over here they won’t bother.

      So yeah, it definitely applies to EVs.

  8. On first glance, it looks like an Electric Soul-that’s mostly the front 3/4 shot. I rather like the floating roof but need to see a straight side-shot. Really like the interior (excepting the floating tablet): that looks like a nice place to be. They definitely need to sort out the traction control because both under- & oversteer in the same corner is disconcerting if you’re not actually trying for them!

    Is this site in the pocket of Big CUV? Are you sneaking subliminal messages in these articles? I ask because I’m starting to like some of these vehicles which I would have automatically dismissed 6 months ago—and it has me worried.

  9. I as an American would have bought at least one Smart Car, but I won’t buy ANY CAR MADE IN CHINA.

    If Smart imported their Manual Transmission Smart Cars and their made in Europe BEV Smart Cars again I’d buy at least one of each. I was too young to get the manual transmission Smart Car back when they were selling them and then one day when I was about to buy a New BEV Smart Car Smart made an announcement that they were stopping sales of Smart Cars in the US that year and as soon as they made that announcement I went to place a final order and I was told that Smart wouldn’t allow them to place any new orders.

      1. Indeed it was, but it was gifted to me and it was an expensive gift.

        Generally I do most everything in my power to not buy a product made in China due to what amounts to slave wages, the horrible manufacturing pollution in China, the fact that whenever you buy anything made in China you are in part funding the CCP and their atrocities are pretty well known but if you don’t know feel free to Google them.

      2. When people literally copy and paste the same argument-inviting response to multiple different comments in a discussion, it means they don’t give a shit about the actual subject and are just trolling. I responded to your other copy of this comment, but I’m sorry I did. If you want to have a substantive discussion, have one. If you want to start fights, go pound sand.

      3. Because China is basically a slave state. lots of sheep like yourself look the other way so you can get you new I phone or whatever else you waste money on for a pittance. it is funny how they use our greed against us to weaken us.

        That being said, the only Smart car that was ever interesting was the little sporty coupe thing. I might have even braved a German engine with turbos for one of those.

        1. I wouldn’t be so quick to throw stones. China has many abhorrent labor practices, so I’m not defending them.

          You’d be surprised how many ‘Made in the USA’ products were made with slave, er I mean, prison labor.

  10. I cannot possibly think of that in my head as being called “hashtag one”. It’s “number one” now and always. It does sound pretty neat although the issues with the controls aren’t good. And the part about understeering and oversteering in the same turn, in a +400hp relatively short and high vehicle, one with all the torque down low and traction control that lies to you, sounds kind of scary. I wonder if they threw on some ultra fuel economy tires to get the maximum range rating possible?

      1. Because we don’t really have a choice in where our phones are manufactured, they are much smaller purchases than cars,they don’t have nearly the symbolic importance that cars do, and two wrongs don’t make a right. Those are four reasons I can think of off the top of my head. Does it make sense to you now?

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