The Smart booth at this year's Detroit Auto Show features more than the iconic Fortwo. There is the For-Us pick-up concept, of course, and the Smart e-bikes that we first saw in Paris in 2010. New Smart USA general manager Tracey Matura said that this is all intentional, because all these things allude to an important question that Smart is trying to ask in the new auto industry.
"I've had people ask me, 'Why a pick-up?' and my answer is, 'Why not?" Matura told AutoblogGreen. "That's kind of what Smart's about: why couldn't it be? It's the same thing with cars. Why do they all have to be big and long and everything else?"
Matura is voicing the mentality that prompted her and Smart to launch the brand's first-ever national advertising campaign in the U.S. in September last year (a second commercial came at the end of October). The "Unbig" commercials came about after Smart's transition from the Penske Automotive Group to returning to the Mercedes-Benz USA fold. The Unbig campaign was a combination of Smart's internal beliefs about what the brand represents and outside agencies, with the core message being to rightsize your life. "The beautiful thing about the Smart is that, yes, it's a car, but it's more than a car. It's a lifestyle, it's a mindset, it's whatever you want it to be," she said. "The Smart makes a statement about the people who drive it."
It's the same thing with cars. Why do they all have to be big and long and everything else?
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The same thing applies to the e-bikes, which will go on sale in Europe this spring. Matura made it sound like they may come to selected North American markets in the not-too-distant future. "Again, why not?" she said, "Smart can be many things, including an electric bike." It can also be a short-term rental. Matura said that Car2go, which isn't directly tied to Smart USA other than through Car2go buying the cars from Smart USA, does a great job of introducing a lot of people to the cars and give them a positive experience with them. "I think we help each other." she said, adding that it's just one more way the brand asks, "Why not?"
Matura said that it's hard to measure the exact impact the Unbig ads have had in the 200+ days the new Smart has been in business, but there were at least somewhat effective, "We can measure results on the dealership floor, and we did see that those drove traffic and interest." There were more dealers to visit, too. Smart currently has 87 dealers in the U.S., up from 75 that Penske had (the 54 Mercedes-Benz dealers that were Smart dealers under Penske remained Smart dealers, an important decision because many Americans don't know that Smart is part of Mercedes-Benz). Matura said another six dealerships are in the works and that Smart is willing to add more when it makes strategic sense; there is no predefined target number – 100, say – that she wants the brand to hit. Anyway, those 87 dealerships sold a total of 5,198 Fortwos in all of 2011, and over half of that number happened under M-B's new leadership. So, even though sales are still low (and decreased from 5,927 in 2010), there was noticeable momentum in the latter half of 2011. "We think there is a lot of runway, if you will," Matura said.
Some of the upcoming sales will be of the third-generation Smart Electric Drive. The new electric vehicle will be faster, quicker and have a longer range than the second-gen ED. Daimler leased around 250 of the second-generation EDs in the U.S. and the learnings from that program and the first generation (which was not available in the U.S.) are being put into effect in the third generation, which is scheduled to arrive in the fall of 2012. That's a bit later than we originally heard it would be here, but Matura downplayed the delay, saying that as long as she's been involved, the timetable has always said to bring the Smart ED to North America in the fall of 2012. Europe should get the car in May or June of 2012.
How will the next-gen ED be better? Range has been beefed up to around 100 miles (the second-generation could only go for around 65 miles), an improved 0-60 time and, most importantly, the top speed is now 75-78 miles per hour. While range anxiety did come up in the discussions with Smart ED drivers, Tracey said, top speed was always a bigger complaint. The second-gen ED's top speed of 60 miles per hour was just barely acceptable, and drivers repeatedly mentioned that going faster would be nicer. With all of these improvements put into place for the third-gen ED, Matura said Daimler "sees great potential with that car in the United States, for sure." Another welcome change is that the third-gen ED will be available for both purchase and lease in North America and that every U.S. Smart dealer will have the opportunity to lease of sell the third-generation Smart, right from the beginning of when the car becomes available here. That's actually what some people have been asking Smart since the ED was made available for lease only here in the U.S.: Why not sell it?