Perhaps you’ve seen a Smart Car. They’re cute little rides that look like Little Tikes Cozy Coupes—you know, the ride-on toys with the yellow top and red base. They—the Smart Cars, not the Cozy Coupes—get good gas mileage and are small, nimble, and affordable.
Yet, as of 2019, they are no longer sold in the US or Canada.
To North American audiences, this isn’t a surprise. Sales on this side of the Atlantic have been steadily declining, reaching a low of 680 units sold in the US in 2019. That’s barely over the number of daily customers in an average Starbucks. Given the decision to also pull the car from Canadian markets, numbers likely aren’t much better there (they were not readily available for this article).
In Europe, however, such news would be shocking. Excepting the disastrous 2020, Smart Car sales in Europe have been on a steady climb, reaching a high in 2019 of 114,504 units sold. If you took those buyers and shoved ‘em into Canada, they’d constitute the 27th largest city in the country.
So, why did the Smart Car catch on in Europe but get utterly rejected in North America? The answer highlights a peculiar blend of practical realities and cultural prejudices that serve as a lesson for car manufacturers working to manage global markets.
The Smart Car was conceived in the 1980s by Nicholas Hayek, the CEO of Swiss Swatch maker SMH. He felt that car manufacturers had been ignoring a demographic interested in stylish, compact city cars. He dubbed his idea the “swatchmobile” but feared existing manufacturers would feel threatened by the new competitor. So, he opted to team with an existing company in the industry.
After some trials, he settled on an agreement with Daimler-Benz AG, makers of Mercedes-Benz cars. Hayek insisted the car retain the Swatch name, but Benz wanted something neutral. They settled on “Smart,” which stands for “Swatch Mercedes Art.” The plant opened in 1997, but when Hayek was disappointed by the initial design, Benz bought out SMH’s stake. The company dealt with dwindling sales until around 2006, and ownership/distribution changed hands through the larger subsidiaries connected to Daimler and, later, Chrysler.
In Europe, sales hit a high around 2004, though yearly numbers are now inching closer and closer to this peak. But in the US, the highest yearly sales—24,622, which is less than half the number sold during any year in Europe except the car’s first—occurred during the car’s first year on the market. Sales have dwindled since, leading to the recent decision to stop selling the car entirely.
A Problem that Didn’t Need Solving
As Forbes stated in a 2006 article, one of the biggest problems with the Smart Car on this side of the Atlantic is that it’s built to solve a problem North American markets don’t have: lack of space.
The US is roughly twice the size of Europe, and Canada’s even bigger. The architecture of both nations is also relatively new. Neither has Europe’s tiny, winding roads or scrunched-up cities built for another era and without public transit in mind. In short, space isn’t at a premium over here. Even in a hyperdense city like New York, it’s unlikely that the extra few feet afforded by a Smart Car will help a driver navigate or get a parking space.
So, just like that, one major appeal of the Smart Car vanishes.
Build for Where You Are
The problem with designing something for a small world is that the product won’t be suited for a big one, and [the US and Canada are very spread out, with low population density.][Link to my article on the moral issues of owning a car] Over here, the distance between where you are and where you’re going is often orders of magnitude longer than in Europe. Even in cities, this remains true. On a ranking of the largest cities in the world by land area, the US is home to nine of the top ten. A European city doesn’t appear until number fourteen.
It’s not easy to build a machine for two opposing purposes. The Smart Car’s low weight, small tank, and tight fit are nice . . . for short trips. These become less appealing when on a highway traveling four times the distance the car is built to accommodate.
Terrain and Weather
This problem doesn’t end there. North America isn’t just bigger than Europe; the terrain and weather here are also more extreme. From higher mountains and lower valleys to inhospitable deserts, the image of the US as the “wild, dangerous West” is accurate, at least landscape-wise, and this extends up into Canada. On a list of country comparisons, the US has a “natural hazards” entry twice as long as that of the European Union. Canada’s wouldn’t be much different.
In addition, between floods, heat waves, tornados, and tsunamis, it’s well known that the US has the world’s most extreme weather, though it can’t beat Canada for cold.
Smart Cars are designed for city living. They don’t have a lot of power because increasing their power would add weight, reducing their gas mileage and core functionality. The downside is that these features simply aren’t viable in some places. A Smart Car is sometimes unfeasible in North America because it can’t handle the heat or mountainous terrain without becoming noisy or slowing down.
Culture: Some Like It Big . . . or Safe
Perhaps due to the overwhelming size and grandiosity of the North American landscape (or, you know, its rampant toxic masculinity), people here tend to prefer bigger cars. The Smart Car thus comes with a cultural stigma. It’s viewed as weak and laughable. More importantly, its small size is considered unsafe. This could be because highway driving and [trucking][Link to my article about playing nice with truckers] are prevalent in North America. Think of how intimidating it is to have a pickup truck roll by you when riding your bike. Now imagine feeling like that while driving your car.
There’s an assumption here that smallness makes a car unsafe, and to some extent, this is true. While Smart Cars have done well in crash safety tests, size differentials have been shown to affect who gets injured in a car crash . . . and vehicles don’t get much smaller than a Smart Car. Even those unaffected by such prejudices in North America tend to choose a more practical vehicle, like a Subaru.
In addition, as Green Car Reports notes, the Smart Car has never escaped its reputation as an economy car.
Meant for Another Market
As we’ve seen, compared to Europeans, North Americans tend to travel longer distances in rougher, more rural environments. They get on the road with bigger, heavier, more intimidating cars, as they regularly battle dramatic geography and apocalyptic weather. A Smart Car can’t handle such terrain as effectively as other vehicles in its bracket. And while Smart Cars have been demonstrated to be far safer than people give them credit for, fear remains a very real experience.
When considering these practical problems along with cultural prejudices, it becomes clear that in North America, the Smart Car was simply pitching to the wrong market.