Some cars occupy a special place in the history of automobile design, and Mercedes-Benz’s Smart Fortwo certainly is among them.
At just 2.5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide, the two-seater weighed roughly 800 kilograms and cost less than 9,000 euros (R142,000) when it was introduced in 1998, making it an easy-to-park and affordable option for city dwellers.
Mercedes stacked the vehicles in display case-like glass towers to market them to a design-conscious urban crowd. In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art in New York entered the car into its permanent collection.
The Smart did relatively well in Europe and helped Mercedes offset the emissions of its gas-guzzling sedans. But the model never caught on to the extent the carmaker had envisioned, particularly in the U.S., where oversize pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles are all the rage.
The SUV craze spread to Europe, nearly sweeping away the microcar in the process.
Mercedes and its Chinese partner Geely last week unveiled a remodeled Smart that’s bigger, heavier, and more expensive than its predecessor.
Dubbed the #1 — say it with me, without cringing: “Hashtag One” — the new Smart is a battery-powered compact SUV with a 440-kilometer range and a stylishly minimalist interior.
It’s also 4.27 meters long — roughly the size of a Volkswagen ID.3 — and weighs almost two metric tons.
While the companies didn’t release a starting price, I’ve seen estimates ranging from 30,000 euros (R475,000) to 40,000 euros (R630,000). That’s not exactly catering to the original Smart crowd.
Some of the radical microcars people got excited about in the early 2000s — think the Tata Nano city car, which cost roughly $2,500 (R37,000) when it was introduced in India in 2008 — have been abandoned mainly because they never turned a profit.
Mass-market manufacturers these days are putting margins over volume, in part because they have to invest massively in electrifying lineups and retooling factories.
The global semiconductor shortage and rising raw-materials costs have only hastened the industry’s moves upmarket.
With its compact electric SUV, Smart is entering an increasingly crowded space.
SUVs accounted for about half of the EV market in Western Europe after the first two months of the year, according to Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based independent auto analyst.
The push to go bigger and more upmarket will price a growing number of people out of the new-vehicle market, especially as personal incomes haven’t kept pace with the relentless climb in pricing.
As always, market changes will give rise to new opportunities, including for used-car sellers and more budget-conscious brands like Kia and Skoda.
“There will be new segments opening” because of rising prices for new cars, Schmidt told me. “We will see a lot more subscription models, where you can join a car club for two or three months.”