July 16, 2014

Confession #50: It's crazy not to bring the Smart ForFour to the US

Daimler's third go at making the Smart ForTwo super small city car concept work looks good so far. Leave it to the French, Renault in this case, to finally make the Smart as weird as it should be. But it's the four-door, four-seat ForFour that could be a hit. And best of all, it looks ridiculous.

Where it could really work is in the United States. Six years ago, the Smart proved relatively popular as far as tiny European cars go. But five years ago, it entered into a sales spiral it never recovered from – even after Daimler stepped in to distribute the car and introduced a really cheap electric version. Americans want more doors and more space. And that's exactly what Daimler is going to keep from Americans.

Here's what's totally confusing about Daimler's current stance not to sell the upcoming ForFour in the U.S. when this new ForTwo comes here in late 2015: they admit people want a bigger Smart.
2015 Smart ForTwo (Photo: Daimler)

Smart's own brand chief told Automotive News earlier this year, "The most frequent reason people don't pick the ForTwo is because it only has two seats."

There, right there.

Aside from retro cars like the Mini and Fiat 500, we don't get a lot of funky subcompacts in this country. The Honda Fit has gone downright mainstream for 2015. The Nissan Versa isn't funky, it's just bulbous. Even the Ford Fiesta is just being fashionable.

2015 Renault Twingo (Photo: Renault)
In Europe, they're getting a whole slew of eccentric little cars. Chief among them is the Renault Twingo, which is the Smart ForFour's mechanical twin. Who doesn't think a rear-engined French hatchback with a sliding fabric roof and a tiny turbo is the perfect car to drive everywhere in second gear?

I can get over the fact we'll never see the Twingo because Nissan would never want Renault adding to its competition here. But when we can't even have the Twingo with a Smart badge made available through our Mercedes dealers, that's a bummer.

It's not that the ForFour would be too small for this country. At 3.5 meters long, think of it as a Fiat 500 with four doors. It's only a few inches shorter than a Chevy Spark, which sells like hotcakes as far as microcars go in the US.

Smart ForFour interior (Photo: Daimler)
Smart estimates the ForFour with the base 71-horsepower three-cylinder engine will go for 11,600 euros, or a 600 euro premium over the ForTwo with the same propulsion. Let's say a ForFour would command a $1,000 bump over a similarly equipped ForTwo in the US. The current car starts at $13,270, which is already too much for a car with wind-up windows and no radio or A/C. The cheapest ForFour would probably close to $15,000 here.

And after you add the things young urban people (or whatever they're called these days), you know the price will get up to 20 grand. That's a lot of money for a car from a company that doesn't have any sort of reputation of building machines you can't wait to drive every day.

Smart ForFour (Photo: Daimler)
But hey, the idea of a $16,000 four-door city car with a 90-horsepower three-pot turbo and a five-speed manual intrigues me, especially one as distinctive looking as this. I suspect a lot of other people would be curious about it, too. It's like the anatomically correct Beetle successor Volkswagen is afraid to build.

Smart might fear the ForFour would cannibalize sales of the ForTwo here, but considering they shifted only about 600 ForTwos last month in the US, it's a chance they should feel like taking. 

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