TURIN -- Smart chief Annette Winkler defended a decision to phase out the brand's combustion engine models, even though she expects to lose sales initially during the transition to an all-electric brand.
In September 2017, parent Daimler announced that Smart would only sell full-electric cars in North America and Europe by 2020, with other markets such as China following soon after.
"We will probably lose some customers in the first phase," Winkler told participants at the Automotive News Europe Congress here Wednesday. "But I'm pretty sure we will have even more success very soon after this period as cities will promote electric cars for sure."
Smart is already one step ahead as both the ForTwo and ForFour are available with electric drivetrains. Winkler said concentrating on just battery-powered cars was perfect for a brand, whose customers on average drove 30 to km to 40 km a day.
Infrastructure, however, remains a key problem, especially in its two core markets Germany and Italy. Here the number of charging stations per 1,000 inhabitants is among the lowest in Europe.
Yet Smart is working on solutions to including an app that can reserve charging stations to provide peace of mind for customers afraid they won’t be able to find one when they need it.
"It's courageous if you think that today we are selling 10,500 Smarts every year in Rome, where I think there are 24 charging stations," she said. "Cities have to invest. Our team in Rome has already convinced 200 parking garages to include charging stations starting next year."
Winkler is stepping down at the end of September after eight years at the helm of Smart. Looking back on her time, she said she was most proud of creating an esprit de corps where creative risk-taking was part of the mentality of every Smart employee.
One example she cited was a crucial vote by workers in Smart's Hambach plant in France to agree to longer working hours. Against the express recommendation of unions, roughly 97 percent voted in 2016 to up their weekly time to 39 from 35 hours. Winkler said this gave Mercedes the confidence to announce last month it would invest 500 million euros in the plant to build compact electric vehicles.
"We need creativity, because we have everything, just no budget," she said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Daimler reported sales of the Smart brand slid 5 percent in May. This brought year-to-date sales to fewer than 52,500 cars – a decline of 8.5 percent.