This story is beginning to look familiar to fans of Smart, the original mainstream mini-car.
A troubled new-age automotive brand is counting on Roger Penske for a rescue after its big corporate owners decide they can’t cover the weaknesses of the marque anymore. Penske is all in. But then he decides to get all out.
Of course, that is the story of the end of the Saturn brand, which Penske Automotive Group looked set to buy from General Motors in 2009 before reversing course and allowing GM to kill Saturn as part of a federally mandated brand house-cleaning that also victimized Pontiac, Saab and Hummer.
Will this kind of brand history be repeated with Smart cars?
Smart’s future still looks iffy even though Penske just announced that it would be turning over the keys to US distribution of Smart to Daimler AG. Penske became the original American distributor of Smart in 2008, but Daimler owns the brand worldwide.
The problem with Smart – which Penske Automotive obviously sees by now – is that it doesn’t have much of a future. Daimler may well keep Smart on life support to help it meet new corporate fuel-economy mandates for the U.S. market.
But as a brand, Smart likely is damaged beyond repair.
Consider that, last year, Smart sales dropped by 76% in the United States from 2009. The car isn’t great to drive. Other tiny cars have entered the market with more to offer, such as Nissan’s all-electric Leaf (though Smart plans to make its own EV available this year). Penske itself is acquiring more Mini franchises.
More damning than anything, though, is that Smart’s gimmicky size caught up with the brand. It’s cute for an owner — once or twice or maybe even a half-dozen times — to demonstrate that he or she can park the Smart where no normal-sized vehicle dare try to rest.
But the Smart’s micro stature also means something else: Most Americans would be afraid to drive it in regular traffic that is populated with many hundreds of other models of vehicles, all of which are larger and more massive than Smart.
No matter that Smart had to pass federal crash-safety tests just like any other new vehicle on American roads – people understand instinctively that, out on the highway for real, mass differentials can still wipe out Smarts.
That’s what’s killing Smart. And there’s not much even Daimler can do about it.