SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA–By any measure, Mercedes's Smart car has been a success in Canada. Since its launch in 2004, more than 10,000 have rolled off dealers' lots–more than three times the number that Mercedes originally forecast.
What's even more intriguing is that Mercedes hadn't planned on selling the Smart in North America, period. Europeans have happily tootled around in them since 1998, with more than three-quarters of a million of the little runabouts on the roads of England, Germany, France, and so on, but Mercedes brass just didn't think it would fly on this side of the pond. When the first few prototypes were brought over in late 2003, I can still remember the reaction I got when I asked a Mercedes executive if we'd ever see them on the streets of Vancouver. "Absolutely not," was the unequivocal reply. Funny how things change.
So why the turnaround? It's a combination of environmental awareness on the part of consumers, higher gas prices, stricter emission requirements, and a shift in buyers' sensibilities. For many Canadian urbanites, a large car is now simply unnecessary, and the Smart came at the right time, and with the right mixture of trendiness and economy. Plus, you can park it anywhere, the value of which is not to be underestimated in traffic-clogged cities like Vancouver. Over-zealous parking-enforcement personnel have apparently handed out tickets to Smarts parked headfirst into the curb, but in theory you should be able to put a couple of them in most conventional parking spots.
"If you drive a lot of other small economy cars," offers Anders Sundt Jensen, head of Smart's global management team, "people ask you: 'Did you lose your job?' But if you drive a Smart car, they think you are trying something different. Smart car buyers tend to be 'thought leaders'."
With that in mind, Mercedes has launched the second generation of the Smart, called Fortwo, and what better place to launch it than Silicon Valley, home to thought leaders like Google, Apple, Intel, and eBay. This also marks the first time the Smart will be offered to American buyers. "Canada was definitely a test market for the U.S.," Jensen says.
The newest version of the Smart loses the erstwhile three-cylinder diesel engine, at least for the time being. In its place is another three-banger, but it's gasoline propelled, with 70 horsepower on tap. This engine was codesigned by Mitsubishi, and is mated to the familiar five-speed sequential automatic transmission, with a manual shift feature. This new drive train makes the newest Smart much livelier than its predecessor, but it still has a somewhat lurchy and abrupt power delivery. It's better than it was, but it's still not the most relaxing car to drive.
On the other hand, it's remarkably capable on the highway. It stays planted at freeway speeds, and has a moderately deep well of reserve power. Hard to believe, perhaps, but the new Smart will touch 160 kilometres per hour, and on a spirited run up Highway 280 from San Jose to San Francisco, it more than kept up with traffic, much to the astonishment of American drivers, many of whom had never seen one before. During the launch, in Palo Alto, an enthusiastic Honda Civic driver pulled up beside us and shouted, "That's the future, baby!"
The new Smart also gets a modest restyling for 2008. Still instantly recognizable, it's had the rough edges smoothed out and doesn't look quite as stunted as before. For its 2.9-metre total length, the Smart feels like a conventionally sized econobox behind the wheel, as long as you don't look behind you. There are some 220 litres of cargo room back there, but this is still strictly a two-seater designed to carry people, not their possessions.
The made-in-France Fortwo comes in two body styles: hardtop coupe and convertible. The latter has a canvas top that can be manually deployed in two different positions. Standard equipment includes power windows, central locking, CD player, and electric tailgate release. You can also order options such as air conditioning ($850), additional instrumentation ($160), heated seats ($350), and a "panoramic" sunroof on the hardtop version ($540). Prices range from $14,990 to $21,250, depending on the equipment level and the model, of which there are three: Pure, Passion, and Passion Cabriolet.
Needless to say, you'll save money at the pump. With fuel-economy ratings of 5.9 litres per 100 kilometres in town and a thrifty 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway, the new Smart will save you over $1,000 a year in gas at current prices. It will also qualify for up to $2,000 in fuel-economy rebates, "if the government rebate program stays the same," adds JoAnne Caza, Mercedes-Benz Canada's director of marketing and public relations. Look for the 2008 Smart Fortwo in showrooms around the end of November.