24 November 2007

Was It Smart?

The original idea behind the smart car was that the vehicle would be easy to drive and park in congested cities. It is short enough to allow it to be parked facing the kerb. The car started selling in 1998 with initial sales encouraging. This led to an expanding of the smart car brand with the introduction of the Roadster and Roadster-Coupe in 2003 and the Forfour sedan in 2004.

Smarts were made in France exclusively up to 2004 but then the smart Forfour were produced in The Netherlands. There the car shared most of its components with the Mitsubishi Colt, which was made there also. However The Forfour and Roadster bombed, as consumers found them to be overpriced and not in keeping with the simplicity of the original idea.

The failure led to a dramatic downturn in smart's fortunes, which led DaimlerChrysler's to consider stopping production altogether. The cars were losing Mercedes Benz a bundle of money. However, it has been kept alive around the basic car only, renamed Fortwo which debuted in 2006. With only a slight increase in size, the look of the original city car remained, but the interior and often-criticized transmission received significant changes and safety was improved. So with the new smart fortwo, how does it rate?

What's good: A design classic; easy to park in crowded cities; quite safe, low carbon emissions.

What's not: Expensive, auto gearbox still jerky and no manual gearbox; cheap feel to the interior. You can get a decent, small four-seater for less.

Overall: It is so-so on the open road so it's really best used around town.

Sales: 2000 100,000 2001-3 120,000 per year 2004 170,000 2005 125,000 2006 85,000 2007 (10 mths) 80,000. The 2004 figure was helped by all three models, but 2005 saw only 45,000 ForFours and 3,000 Roadsters. Best countries: Germany 50,000 (2004) Italy 42,000 (2005).

Why didn’t MB bite the bullet years ago and kill the whole thing instead of stubbornly keeping on going? Maybe it wouldn’t be good for German/French relations. Were the executives too proud to admit their mistake? Pride can hurt you and this car has certainly done that for MB. When smart creators Swatch went to VW to make the car, they wouldn’t. That should have set alarm bells ringing. It didn’t for MB execs and that decision has cost them big time, billions of Euros in fact. It may be easy to park and frugal sipping fuel, but most want more than that and smart just cannot deliver. It proved not to be that smart an idea in the end.

23 November 2007


In the 1920’s Karl Maybach started making expensive limousines. During World War II, Maybach built tank and boat engines. After the war, the German economy could not support a premium automobile and production never resumed. Only 1,800 were made over 20 years which wasn’t too shabby for the time I’d imagine. The brand disappeared until the 21st century when Mercedes Benz resurrected it to be the ultimate luxury car. Has it worked?

As a car: Apparently it is fast considering it’s size. However, it’s Ride & handling is less composed than you would expect from a limousine at this price. It is very expensive to buy and own (no surprise there then). Each is hand made and be specified to your taste. They are so roomy, even the rear seats recline.

Sales: 2002: 900, 2003: 550, 2004: 250 2005/06: 300 each year, 2007 Jan-Oct 260. In comparison, Rolls Royce sold 800 last year and will nudge 1,000 this year. Bentley has in excess of 10,000 in it’s sights for ’07. (To be fair, Bentley sales include the ‘down market’ Continental range).

Now 29 of Maybach’s original 71 US dealers have given up their franchises; in turn, Mercedes has offered compensation to those dealers. Maybach dealers spent up to US$500,000 apiece to build dealerships. But US sales never approached the goal of 600 units per annum. In 2006, Mercedes sold 146 Maybachs in the US.

Why has it failed? It’s a limited market anyway, Bentley & RR have more established names and Maybachs are downright ugly to many including yours truly. To think that it could sell the numbers MB thought is amazing. It probably hasn’t cost MB too much as they do not appear to have put much money into it. Why don’t they just put it out to pasture and the old marque slip back into history and leave it in peace.