rsquo14 Smart Electric Drive on sale this month

’14 Smart Electric Drive on sale this month.

Smart Brand Brushes Off Critics, Sharpens Focus

The 2-seat minicars have been derided by industry onlookers, but increasing sales point to a new kind of loyal customer, the auto maker says.

ANN ARBOR, MI – Daimler’s Smart is drawing a particular type of customer, and the auto maker realizes retaining brand aficionados, rather than chasing new converts, is its key to longevity.

Smart’s Fortwo 2-seater, its only model, has suffered criticism in surveys and taunts from industry-watchers. The brand ranks at the bottom of J.D. Power’s most recent APEAL survey (Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout) and the Fortwo was declared one of the “most embarrassing” cars to own in another survey.

The car has drawn little critical praise for its performance, handling or styling.

Recent sales trends show more promise, however. Fortwo deliveries doubled from 5,208 units in 2011 to 10,009 in 2012, according to WardsAuto data, although this year sales are pacing 3.8% behind like-2012 through July, at 5,319 units.

Fresh product is in the pipeline for the ’15 model year, but to push the needle a bit until then, the brand is introducing an electrified Fortwo called the Electric Drive. It comes in hardtop and convertible models, making it the only EV in the U.S. market with a drop-top.

Smart U.S. General Manager Mark Webster says the brand will target current Fortwo owners before casting a wider net for the Electric Drive. The ideal customer is someone who’s “eco-friendly but also economic-friendly,” he tells WardsAuto here on the sidelines of a media drive for the car.

Webster says current Smart owners are part of the creative class who are not necessarily defined by the car they drive, but still are drawn toward trend-setting style.

“Vanilla ice cream is always going to be the favorite, because it’s vanilla ice cream,” he says. “We’re not vanilla ice cream. We’re different.

“Our owners very much love the cars. They’re passionate owners…and we’re going to continue to grow on that.”

Smart buyers have crowd-sourced ideas for paint colors and special editions of the Fortwo. The brand rolls out limited-run color options and about three or four special editions annually.

“For us, it’s something that really connects and makes the brand feel really closer, and gives more ownership to the brand,” Mike Martin, product manager, tells WardsAuto.

Smart continues to pride itself as a commuter-car brand that fills a niche for urban dwellers.

“We know not everybody needs a 4-seat car, and there’s 100 million people every day that drive solo to work,” Webster says. “So if you add up all the car seats, there’s almost 300 million empty car seats.”

The brand may have some negative connotation because it appeared to attract only “novelty buyers” when it first launched U.S. sales in 2008. But insiders say Daimler is fine-tuning its focus, no longer trying to convert consumers critical of the brand and instead targeting those who see the potential value of a 2-seat commuter.

A diesel Fortwo was considered but nixed when engineers couldn’t easily formulate a powertrain for the minicar and Daimler decided certifying a diesel for Smart would be cost-prohibitive, particularly given what Mercedes sees as still-lukewarm acceptance of the technology in the U.S.

“If we achieved higher volumes where we could amortize that investment. Iit would be something we’d look at,” Webster says.

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