Daimler's Smart factory: A very German and French operation

Bruce Gain is an Automotive News Europe correspondent in France.Bruce Gain is an Automotive News Europe correspondent in France.
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A visit to Smart's car production plant in Hambach, France, offers a first-hand look at how the Daimler subsidiary gets two different cultures to work together.

Hambach is about 8km from the German border. The signposts and billboard ads in the surrounding area are in French, which is also the official language spoken on the assembly line floor of the plant.

However, the German influence is very prevalent.

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The architecture of the Hambach area's box-shaped houses and buildings is certainly more Germanic than Latin. The local inhabitants often speak a hybrid of French and German.

Headquartered in Boblingen, near Stuttgart, Smart is officially a German company. Joachim Betker, head of Smart France, and Annette Winkler, head of Smart worldwide, are both German nationals. One of their challenges will be successfully integrating even more French influences into Smart as it deepens ties with Renault. The partners are co-designing a rear-wheel platform on which the new Smart ForFour, ForTwo and Renault Twingo will be based in two years.

The French automaker will produce both a gasoline-powered and EV version of the Smart ForFour at its site in Novo Mesto, Slovenia, where it also will make the new Twingo.

The production of the new ForFour will likely be very similar to that of the Smart ForTwo's assembly in Hambach, where EVs and fuel-powered models roll off the same assembly line.

Taking a step back, Smart and Renault's relationship typifies the kind of venture the EU's architects likely had in mind decades ago when first discussing the concept of a politically and economically integrated Europe.

But one of the main reasons that Smart and Renault are working together is because the automakers need to find ways to make their low-margin small cars more profitable. Sharing plants, platforms, procurement and more is crucial to meeting this goal.

When ask about Smart's profitability, Winkler would not comment. It is known that Smart is losing money, what's unknown is when it might someday turn a profit.

One thing is certain, to get into the black Smart will heavily dependant on its ability to blend its German-ness and French-ness.

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