A brand died in North America last week, and if you didn't notice its departure, it's probably because you also didn't notice it in full health — if it was ever truly healthy.
Smart, the little brand that couldn't, now isn't.
And so closes the chapter on a story that had too many twists and (down) turns, consumed billions of neurons in intellectual capital, contained an ocean of ambition, toppled executive careers and almost tarnished one of the most successful business minds in auto history.
Yes, even Roger Penske felt Smart's sting.
And how could he not?
Smart changed its business plan as many times as it changed the color of its cars. Sales matched its segment: micro.
At its peak in 2008, Smart's first year on the market, parent Daimler sold 24,622 units in the U.S. — then sales fell 41 percent a year later and never passed 10,500 vehicles again.
Last year, Smart sold 1,276 cars — a number that made the Fiat 500 (5,370 sales in 2018) look big by comparison.
And, despite entering the market when gas prices were high, things never got better. Its timing was ultimately as flawed as its mission.
At 106.1 inches, it was too small for America, but what really drove a drill through the brand was fracking.
Like Fiat, Daimler needed $5-per-gallon gasoline to make the economics work. Only, even then, it didn't really work right. Drive one of the early models and one couldn't get past the two-speed transmission. Look at one and it was hard to describe the styling as inviting.
In Europe's city centers, it became common to spot a Smart parked sideways, sandwiched between two vehicles, or placed on a sidewalk. But U.S. cities and roads aren't European, and Smart didn't have the cache to compete with the cool Italian heritage of Fiat.
But Daimler isn't giving up. In March, it said it was creating a joint venture with Zhejiang Geely Holding Group to build a new generation of Smart models in a purpose-built electric-car factory in China with sales to begin in 2022 — which makes perfect sense, except the Chinese prefer long-wheelbase vehicles with room for a driver. Hmm.
So the story continues somewhere else.
A Smart story, but a wise ending in America.
Jason Stein is publisher of Automotive News. You may email him at [email protected] Keith Crain's column will return.