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.
And, when the second generation ForFour finally came out, Daimler nixed any thought of Smart USA selling it, on the grounds that their research concluded that it would “only” double sales for the brand in North America, and that that still wouldn’t be enough to turn a profit on it after federalization, which, I guess, speaks to how much cash Smart was hemorrhaging by that point, since doubling sales volume would seem like a pretty attractive proposition for most companies. Not long after, they switched the ForTwo to electric-only, and the brand died a pretty quick death.
A shame, I use the back seat often enough that I’ve never been able to quite justify going to a two seater (and, also, my current employer won’t pay mileage reimbursement on vehicles with less than 4 doors, unless its a pickup truck), but the RR ForFour always seemed like a really appealing car to me.
One thing to keep in mind… two times nothing is still nothing…
Fun fact: The first Smart ForFour was, I believe, built on the same platform and in the same plant as Mitsubishi’s European model Colt. I’m pretty sure it was in the Dutch Nedcar plant, which started out as a DAF factory.
Looks like the sketched it with Focus ST snowflake wheels?
If you wanted to buy a Micra, which dealership would give you better service? MB or Nissan?
Point of order, Penske was going to rebrand Renaults as Saturns, not Nissans; but Nissan was still in partnership with Renault and kiboshed it.
Still, seeing how Penske tried to run the community aspect of Smart makes me think of how much a match they were for Saturn. Oh, what might have been.
I thought the same thing when I read about Smart’s internet presence…seemed like the online version of the Saturn thing back in the ’90s.
I had a coworker back then who was a member of the (benevolent) cult. He went to the homecomings, the factory tours, etc. and really enjoyed his SL1.
All I could think of was “why didn’t you get the SC1? It has pop up headlights!!” 😉
Ah, noted! One of the sources I read noted Nissan, but perhaps they (and we’re talking about reports from over a decade ago, here) got it wrong. I’ll have that corrected!
Sadly, the community aspect was the best part about Penske’s running of Smart. Otherwise, the cars came with really short warranties (2yrs/24k miles) and Penske did little advertising. I’m not sure what would have happened if PAG had Smart and Saturn to keep afloat.
I like that first-gen Smart Forfour more than I should. I also wish we got the Micra down here, though they got it up in Canada :/
Interesting. Thanks for another concise yet deep dive into automotive oddities!
IIRC the gas-engined Smart Fortwo as launched in the US in 2007 had about the gas mileage of a Toyota Yaris which had considerably more room being a full 5-seater.
As per the EPA, 33/41 for the smart vs 29/36 for the Yaris, which works out to $50-100/year savings (although I believe the smart did a bit better real-world). The real upset was once the Mitsubishi Mirage hit the market a few years later (better economy, more power, a back seat, and all without the smart’s premium fuel request).
The Smart did slightly better on fuel economy, but the Yaris was a better value given double the practicality for a roughly similar price.
Oh, and the Yaris didn’t drink Premium. Honestly, Smart should have given us the diesel. But, when I asked Smart USA why they didn’t, the reps just said that they chose the “one size fits all” option between speed (Brabus) and economy (diesel).
Even as a die-hard smart fan, I completely understand why they had to exit the market. I doubt that a 4-door smart could ever sell well in America simply because Americans (by and large) don’t want small cars. I think it’s a real shame smart stopped selling in the US, but I don’t see how they could ever be successful.
I really think the failure of Smart in the US is all about the false economy the car delivered in that small of a size. The conveniences of the size needed a huge advantage in operating costs to make up for the lower utility of such a small vehicle. Had they lived up to the expectations of thrift, they would’ve sold many more cars.
They way it was, those who wanted economy had at least a dozen much larger cars to choose from, all of which got better gas mileage and lower running costs than the cramped two-seater that cost nearly twice as much as most of the other choices.
The Micra could have legitimately saved Smart in the U.S. They should of made it happen.
I had a chance to rent a current generation Micra a couple years ago (in Iceland of all places), and it absolutely rocked.
A tiny 4 door with a snarly three cylinder 1.3 turbo with a 6 speed is a revelation in a car that light. Made me think a bit of a Fiat 500 Abarth except with better styling.
We can’t get them in the states, but we certainly should.
Honestly, the SUV stands a good chance at reviving Smart in this country, but they won’t give it a chance. I mean, sure, the SUV would make diehard fans like myself shake our heads, but there weren’t enough of us to pay the bills, anyway. They could use the SUV to be like Porsche, and sell SUVs so they can still sell other things.
Here’s the thing a good small car with a quirky design will sell in decent numbers. Hey I remember when Mazda dusted off the completely written off small 2 door convertible called it some silly name like Miata, what the hell is that, I heard they sold okay. But maybe some experts can correct me. However a poorly built, poorly performing car with mpg as the main thrust that only has decent mpg that has a complete disaster in looks, sorry Mercedes these are just plain ugly, will not sell past fans. I do think the main issue is competition. Once one company has successfully designed a good but niche car if the competition has 2 or 3 more competition then not enough sales to go around and a decent little niche car is trashed by all 3 because unprofitable. I think a small pickup, small as in D50 Luv Ranger and the like would be successful until everyone builds one than boom noone builds one.
Completely off-topic, sorry, but holy shit, you were 15 in 2007? I would never guess you’re so young. That means you turned/will turn 30 this year! I can safely say that things only started going right for me in my thirties and lots of people around me all say the same, hopefully your thirties will also bring lots of great things. And let’s be honest, you’re way more accomplished than I was at 30, so I can’t wait to see what universe has in store for you 🙂 Hopefully a lot of Smarts (we have a shitload of them here in Portugal btw, including ForFours and Roadsters, come visit sometime!)
I turn 30 this November! And thank you very much! 🙂
With luck, I’ll be starting my 30s by getting married, going on an epic honeymoon, and continuing to write the stories that I love to write and (hopefully) you all love to read. And yeah, I guess I’ll buy a car or a few here and there.
And yes!!! I need a passport, if only so I can enjoy the cars that I cannot buy here just yet. Smart around the Green Hell, maybe?
Please make it happen! I’m sure it won’t be the first time a Smart does the ‘Ring, but none of the previous ones had Miss Mercedes behind the wheel 🙂 I’m sure if you send out a Call for Smarts from readers nearby, you’ll be able to do a lap with every single Smart model ever sold.
I don’t have a Smart but if you ever come to Portugal there’s a ’91 Renault 4 GTL you can test drive any time. And just going around my neighbourhood you’re guaranteed to spot quite a few Smarts (I cannot stress this enough, they’re really popular around here).
That Micra is a fantastic little car. Simple, cheap, light and looks alright for what it is.
Too bad the rebadge never came to fruition.
Interestingly, the Micra was offered in Canada up until 2020, but not in the US.
But we got the Mitsubishi Mirage, which is even smaller and slower.
Smart is gone Forfour Ever.