Farewell, wee Smart car. You and your goofy little mug, we hardly knew ye.
Late last year, Mercedes-Benz pulled the plug on United States sales of Smart, their plucky, improbably short two-seat hatchback. And so, sadly, another city car bit the dust.
A few months earlier, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had announced that its skinny-mini Fiat 500 was being withdrawn from the U.S. market. In 2018, Ford gave its subcompact Fiesta and larger but still small Focus models the trapdoor treatment, while GM deep-sixed its once successful Chevrolet Cruze compact. More recently, Volkswagen all but canceled its once best-selling Golf, offering it only in high-priced versions. With baby Smart’s departure, Mercedes’s smallest car for America is now the A220, which has two more doors, six feet in additional length, and weighs more than half again as much.
A pattern has emerged. Just when our cities really need them, small cars are going away, and with them the many benefits they confer, better gas mileage and lower emissions chief among them. Also disappearing: the promise of reduced congestion (big S.U.V.’s really do slow passage through intersections) and easier parking. While others fritter their lives away, circling the boulevards in desperate hope of finding spaces large enough to house their three-row adventure-mobiles, city-car commuters are able to find executive-grade parking right in front of their destination almost every time.
Far from Perfect
We must acknowledge that the small cars offered Americans have been far from perfect, and not just because they were, well, too small. Though it sold briskly upon its U.S. debut, in 2008, the Smart was never a very good car. Originally the idea of Swatch-watch mogul Nicolas Hayek, it was to be built in partnership with Volkswagen, but the whole Smart enterprise, including a factory in France, was acquired by Mercedes before the first car was built, in 1998. Hayek was out, yet, as reconceived by Mercedes, the Smart car arrived surprisingly under-baked—slow, ill-handling, and not particularly reliable. Gas mileage was quite good but bested by larger, more practical cars. (Recently, China’s Geely took a 50 percent interest in Smart, which is to relaunch as an all-electric brand.)
A second-generation Smart, the first marketed in America, was improved but still weak. Like its predecessor, however, it absolutely ruled in the area of parkability and the all-important world of appearances. Erratic quality, a diabolical transmission, and fuel economy bettered by bigger cars were genuine demerits. But nothing said “How green am I?” quite so effectively as the Smart. Like the oddball Toyota Prius, which outsold all other hybrid cars combined because of its distinctive looks, the Smart (including the third-gen car, launched in 2016) made a statement about its owners. And it was absurdly easy to park, a matter of great relevance in crowded urban areas, though not so much in the heartland or the mall parking lots of suburbia. Sales fell off the table to fewer than 1,300 in 2018, from nearly 25,000 in 2008.
Nothing said “How green am I?” quite so effectively as the Smart.
For Smart and the others, several factors were at play. In 2008, the world was in a state of economic collapse, gasoline prices were high, and minimalism was in. Cheap, fuel-efficient cars were more popular, with the government as well as consumers. But Washington’s position has changed. The Trump administration’s attitudes toward fuel-economy rules and emissions regulation aren’t just indifferent but actively hostile. Blame, too, the Obama administration’s own-goal fuel-economy regs, which misguidedly grandfathered in the car companies’ mounting addiction to building S.U.V.’s and crossovers (car-based instead of truck-based S.U.V.’s) by allowing them to build less-fuel-efficient vehicles if they were larger and heavier.
Bigger vehicles, with their higher driving positions, (rarely tapped) off-road capability, and purported room-for-everything practicality, were easy to sell—and more profitable to build. A top-of-the-line Ford Focus might have topped out at $25,000. A Ford Escape crossover, based on the Focus and sharing its chassis but riding higher, cost Ford approximately an extra $2,000 to build. But loaded with options it might sell for $38,000 or more. You do the math.
The car companies frame themselves as helpless and blameless in the face of raging consumer preference, but we live with the simple paradigm they have collectively created: the car-makers’ dirty secret is that a large car isn’t dramatically more expensive to produce than a small one. But rather than committing to the notion that a small car could be a more efficient, higher-priced premium car—we saw hopeful shades of that in BMW’s initially successful, now foundering relaunch of the Mini brand—the industry reverted to an easy-to-understand pricing ladder. In the old days, if it was longer, it cost more. Today, if it rides higher, it costs more. If it is longer and higher, it costs more still. Witness the new Cadillac Escalade S.U.V. revealed in February. For 2021, it’s getting even longer, taller, and wider. And more expensive.
The car-makers’ dirty secret is that a large car isn’t dramatically more expensive to produce than a small one.
Credit here the car-makers’ sudden urgent need to gird their loins for the huge expense of building electric and autonomous vehicles. That’s certainly the view of the all-powerful financial markets, with their knee-jerk embrace of the unhealthful notion that every sale today must be the most profitable one going. It is a distressing belief system that bears no relation to history, today’s reality, or established principles of long-term well-being, akin to deciding that every meal should be dessert, because it tastes so good.
Putting aside the industry’s highly visible role in shaping the current state of regulatory affairs, proof of its unfortunate centrality in today’s sales mix is even simpler to uncover by reasoning backward: if it wasn’t going to be fundamentally pleasurable for them to churn out higher-priced, thirstier, more polluting S.U.V.’s and crossovers, if it offended the collective conscience in any way, one can be certain that the industry wouldn’t have spent tens of billions of dollars loudly promoting and marketing this new world order, while simultaneously mumbling about their electric-car initiatives and euthanizing not just their small cars, but cars generally, in favor of more profitable crossovers.
But let’s close on a lighter note, literally, with some consumer direction. Say you’ve escaped falling for the fashion, and you want a city car. Options do exist. The typically more farsighted Japanese and Korean car-makers haven’t washed their hands of small cars, for one thing, and they’re pretty good. Having been ceded this slice of the market by the retreating Americans and Europeans, they can do well even in a period of reduced demand. Among new cars, I like the Volkswagen GTI, Honda Fit, Toyota Corolla, and various Kias and Hyundais. But, crucially, none are really that small anymore.
For something more humble in its proportions, you might choose to chase down a leftover or lightly used Fiat 500, a swell city car even if the first blush of youth has long since passed. You could buy a used Smart on Craigslist or, for something sportier, a well-kept example of Ford’s Fiesta ST, a very spicy option that I might have chosen for myself were it not for this: my car-crazed son and I have fallen for old, cheap city cars we’ve imported from abroad. He drives a one-liter 1981 Austin Mini Metro from the U.K. A 1988 Peugeot 205 GTI (still made in France, and elsewhere) is my favorite. But I also have a 1994 Fiat Cinquecento that’s come here from Belfast. It’s only got 0.9 liters under the hood. But it gets 52 m.p.g., goes 80 m.p.h. happily, and even though it has a back seat, it isn’t even two feet longer than a Smart.
Better yet, you could always take public transportation.
Jamie Kitman is a car columnist for AIR MAIL