Once hot, Smart's price, seating and fuel economy losing some appeal

Automotive News Europe's e-newsletter today leads with a story on the Smart ForTwo's precipitous sales falloff in the United States. Rarely has a brand found it so hard to answer the question: After the buzz wears off, then what?

Smart plans to refresh the car and to increase customization options with color sheeting. Unfortunately, I doubt that American consumers are rejecting Smart for reasons of fashion. In terms of both price and fuel economy, the ForTwo fails to offer compelling advantages over the competition.

I can remember seeing Smarts in Europe (where they make some sense for zipping about tightly crowded cities) and thinking, “Wow, they could bring this thing to the U.S. and sell it for, say, $9,000. And it probably gets 60 mpg.”

I was a little off in my estimates.

The ForTwo has a $12,635 base price, including shipping. Buyers get a tiny two-seater with a 36 mpg combined city-highway rating.

But shoppers can buy a number of five-seaters for comparable prices and get fuel economy that's not much lower.

Consider a Nissan Versa, with a $10,740 base price and a 30 mpg combined rating.

Or a Hyundai Accent: $12,715; 30 mpg.

For a $650 bump, you could get into a base Toyota Yaris: $13,355; 32 mpg.

That's the crux of Smart's problem. It is offering less car, but its price isn't significantly lower than that of competitors. Smart's fuel-economy edge is surprisingly small, in light of its considerable weight advantage. The problems are fundamental.