Smart has had a difficult existence since its 1998 debut. The Daimler brand's debut model, the ForTwo, was the first true megacity vehicle: a microcar so small that two can fit lengthwise in one parking space. But an expansion into new segments backfired, resulting in a 1.2 billion-euro restructuring and lineup reduction to get the brand on track. Daimler said the economic feasibility of a third-generation ForTwo could only be guaranteed if it found a partner. The search led Smart to Renault-Nissan and resulted in Smart's new ForTwo and ForFour as well as Renault's new Twingo. Smart CEO Annette Winkler recently spoke to Automotive News Europe Editor Luca Ciferri and Correspondent Christiaan Hetzner about the brand's future.
Are your profit margins more typical of a premium or a volume brand?
We do not comment on profitability, but I can tell you that Smart contributes positively to Mercedes-Benz Cars' earnings.
Will China become Smart’s most important market this year?
Not all derivatives are available in China yet. We only had the 71-hp engine so far, while the turbo started in February and the ForFour in April. It’s difficult to predict, though. It's also important to emphasize we do not only look at sales country by country, since Smart is an urban brand.
What do you mean?
We have a family of so-called "Smart Cities" where dealers from Barcelona to Nanjing to San Francisco exchange best practices. Once a year we hold a big meeting where it's about learning from the most passionate Smart partners. We have 21 and will add 10 to 12 this year, including London for example.
Could you provide some examples of ideas that have been transferable across cultural borders?
Our Italian dealers recruited "Smart Angels," who are not trained sales people but student ambassadors. They could sell up to five Smarts in three months. Since they were real Smart fans, they were able to get their friends to go on test drives. Another example comes from a dealership in San Diego, California. They trained the entire staff from the secretaries to the people in the workshop to those in sales: Everybody was allowed to sell Smart. Then they had a competition to see who could sell the most cars in 72 hours. This also encouraged Mercedes sales people to become more passionate about Smart as well.
What was the mix of the new ForFour versus your core ForTwo last year?
Coincidentally, it happened to be exactly what we predicted. We estimated it would be one-third ForFour, two-thirds ForTwo and that’s what is was.
Are you still looking at a small SUV?
We have a unique car with the ForTwo and we are happy to have a unique four-seat car, both with a rear-engine concept. So why should I invest in something where I make my brand comparable to everyone else? A Smart always has to be a unique concept.