Penske Automotive Group, which owns a massive chain of auto dealerships worldwide, announced this week it was ending its relationship with Smart. Smart cars will now be sold and serviced at Mercedes Benz dealerships instead, following a brief transition.
It's not hard to see why Penske made this decision. Since being introduced to the U.S. in 2008, the Mercedes-Benz-built microcar has failed to catch on. In 2010, a survey by CNW Research showed less than 1 percent of car shoppers had the car on their list of buying prospects.
Why have U.S. consumers rejected the Smart? According to CNW:
Our focus groups were pretty blunt about their experience with the Smart. Drive train issues -- from the use of premium fuel to the less than smooth engine-transmission operation -- noisy interior and dodgy handling at highway speeds led the list of product-related issues.
On the psychological side, many owners began feeling unsafe in the Smart even though the car has proven to be quite good for its size. Close quarters, scary Web photos of Smarts in accidents, wind buffeting when passed by oncoming trucks or large motor homes, and a feeling that the car is not sufficiently powered to avoid accidents all were voiced as concerns.
And then there is a gender thing going on. Men felt the car was too toy-like to be seen in or to use as a primary vehicle. Women thought the styling was both adorable and cute, but lacked load capacity for such things as groceries.
Young consumers (under age 25) were put off by the price and two-seat configuration, preferring lower-priced econ-boxes such as Nissan Cube, Scion xB and Kia Soul, while older consumers (60-plus) thought the value was lacking (size and price didn't "compute" according to many participants and respondents.)
I'm a certifiable cheapskate, and I never got what people saw in the Smart in the first place. In the Smart, you get a tiny interior with no trunk space or back seats and good-but-not-amazing fuel economy at a price ($11,540 for a base model on sale right now) that could buy you a Hyundai Accent or Nissan Versa with literally twice the interior volume, with more than a $1,000 left over for options or that new TV you wanted.
Sure, your fuel mileage will be better in the Smart, but any fuel cost advantage that might give you is partially negated by the Smart's premium fuel requirement. The parking thing I get, but if parking is that much of an issue where you live/work, wouldn't some combination of car sharing and public transportation be better than ownership?
What do you think? Is Penske making the right decision? Am I being unfair to Smart?