Americans have been living without the Smart brand as a choice in the marketplace for over three sad years. There are dozens of us [Editor’s Note: Number still unconfirmed. – JT] who are still mourning that loss. But Smart’s American death was not without the company trying to keep things alive. At one point, Smart’s American distributor scored a deal with Nissan to rebadge Micras and sell them as a weird U.S.-only Smart Forfour.
Smart’s existence in the United States is one that could be described as a failure. The concept of Smart–tiny cars that look a bit silly, are cheap to insure, cheap to run, and make city driving a cinch–works in Europe and China, where the brand enjoys healthy sales. Smart once even found some sales in Canada by giving residents of that country the thrifty and economical diesel Fortwo CDI.
For the United States, the initial plan was to follow the trends. In the early 2000s and like today, Americans couldn’t get enough SUVs. Smart knew what Americans wanted and the company was going to play ball. The automaker’s U.S. debut was suppose to ride on the Formore, an SUV that rode on the Mercedes-Benz C-Class platform. Smart actually saw people off-roading in this thing!
And Smart was serious about building it. Development got right to the production stage and Smart was filling a factory in Brazil with tooling. Roger Penske’s United Auto Group (later Penske Auto Group) established Smart USA as Smart’s U.S. distributor. But days before production was to start, Smart ran out of money. See, while its cars were popular and were selling, the company was lighting cash on fire. The failure of the Roadster only made things worse. Smart was liquidated and completely absorbed into its parent DaimlerChrysler. Dead was the Formore, along with other quirky Smart concepts.
DaimlerChrysler gave Smart orders to focus on profits over anything else, so Smart went all-in on just the Fortwo. Thus, the United States would get Smart, but without the SUV that Smart thought would sell.
Smart would begin U.S. sales in 2008 through Penske, right on time for the Great Recession and high gas prices. The 2008 second-generation Fortwo seemed to be the perfect recession car.
It had a starting price of about $12,000, it scored as high as 41 mpg in EPA testing, and it looked futuristic. Reservations–which had started in 2007–were soon so full that Smart’s factory in Hambach, France couldn’t build cars fast enough. Those who wanted a Smart had to pay $99 to join a reservation list that was at one point almost two years long. It seemed that Smart USA had a winner on its hands.
Around this time, I was 15 years old and the little Fortwo became my dream car. I joined America’s largest Smart forum and even found myself mingling with Smart USA’s management. Penske’s vision for Smart USA was to run a car company unlike any other. It was common for Penske’s representatives to be active in the forums and Smart USA’s president went to just about every owner-organized event. The company even hosted some events. Buying a car from most car companies didn’t mean getting the CEO’s phone number, but that was the case for many who bought a Smart. Penske operated Smart USA almost not like a car company, but as a club of sorts.
Smart USA closed out its first year of sales with 24,622 Fortwos put on the road. Not bad for a city car in a country where large vehicles are king. Then things started to fall apart.
A number of people who placed reservations had only seen a Smart, but not driven one. Over time, some began canceling reservations. And some of those who took delivery of their cars sold them soon after. I got to watch this happen before my eyes and the reasons were numerous. Some of those who didn’t drive the car before buying it found the transmission to be horrible. Some people didn’t realize that they needed more than just two seats. Others couldn’t afford to buy their cars in the rough economy. And some bought in simply because the design was trendy and the novelty had worn off.
Before long, the reservation list was joined by an “orphan” list, or a list of people waiting for someone to cancel their reservation or fail to take delivery of their car. I originally joined an orphan list, but teenage me couldn’t scrape up the money to follow through when a car became available to me.
Either way, by the end of 2009 sales had fallen to 14,595 units, many of them reservations that carried over from 2008. Sales going into 2010 were far slower, and suddenly Penske had a bit of a problem on its hands.
One of Penske’s solutions was an answer to the complaint about the Fortwo having just two seats. But there was another problem as Smart wasn’t building anything other than the Fortwo at the time. The first-generation Forfour (below) died in 2006, and its replacement didn’t happen until 2014.
In October 2010, reports announced that Penske struck a deal with Nissan to sell a small car in the U.S. badged as a Smart. The car that would serve as the backbone of the new car? Nissan’s March, also known as the Micra. The Micra isn’t anything too special; it has a weird design, but this is just a small car that has at best a 1.6-liter four that makes 110 horsepower. But for Smart USA, the important part was that it had seating for four.
Rough sketches appeared from Smart USA that depicted what the Smart-badged version would look like.
To my eye, it looked like the artist slapped a first-generation Forfour’s front fascia onto a Micra, a Fortwo’s taillights onto the rear, then random silver accents. I’m not sure where those headlights come from. [Editor’s Note: It also looks pretty squished/stretched for a Micra, too. – JT]
The new model was said to be arriving in showrooms towards late 2011. And with Smart USA closing out 2010 with just 5,927 cars sold it was desperately needed.
But Penske’s plan for a U.S.-specific Smart four-door model wouldn’t last long. As a result of Smart USA’s pitiful sales, Penske handed distribution of Smart in the country to Mercedes-Benz USA.
During the transition from Penske to Mercedes, the four-door was scrapped just four months after its announcement. Mercedes-Benz USA planned to raise sales numbers without Nissan’s help.
It’s not known how far Nissan and Smart got into the process, but if it were successful it would have been the second four-door Smart in the company’s history to actually be a different car underneath. After all, the first-generation Forfour was really just a Mitsubishi Colt under the metal.
And funny enough, this wasn’t even Roger Penske’s first rodeo in trying to rebadge Nissans. Back when Saturn died, Penske tried to buy the brand from General Motors just to slap Saturn badges on Nissans.
Mercedes-Benz USA was successful in raising sales. In fact, U.S. sales doubled under MBUSA’s rule. However, the bump still wasn’t enough. In 2019, Mercedes-Benz cut the cord for the entire North American market. Despite Smart’s newest offering being an SUV, there still aren’t any plans to return to North America.