It’s the end of the road and the end of a chapter in North America’s automotive history as the 2019 Smart EQ ForTwo drives off into the sunset.
Last month Daimler AG, which produces both Mercedes-Benz and Smart brands, announced that the small-car division and its only vehicle — the Smart ForTwo — will wind up operations in North America after the last of the cars are sold this year.
Given that Smart sales numbers were close to nonexistent in the months leading up to the announcement, it was not unexpected.
But the little guy is going out with a bang, not a whimper, thanks to the federal government’s recent $5,000 incentive for electric cars.
This is not the first time Canada has inadvertently stepped in to improve the fortunes of the tiny car.
Smart got its start in North America — as the story goes — thanks to Natural Resources Canada back in 2000. Engineers had assembled a fleet of small, highly fuel-efficient cars to evaluate. One of them was a Smart.
They discovered that the small car would be legal for Canadian roads with the addition of two safety items. They shared their findings with Daimler, which had no idea of the study and no intention of bringing such a small car into the country.
Remember the full-size Ford F150 was at that time, and continues to be, one of the most popular vehicles in Canada.
Long story short, they decided to give it a go, initially expecting to sell a few hundred cars in 2004 for loyal fans — many who saw the car in Europe and inquired about it when they got home.
To their surprise, they kept selling out month after month, eventually selling more than 4,000 in 2005. Soon, Americans were calling, asking to import the cars into the U.S., where they were not being offered.
Sales jumped in 2008 and 2009, with a new body and sales (finally) in the U.S. through authorized channels.
But a recession in the U.S. as well as a freefall in oil prices put a damper on sales.
Sales jumped back up again in 2014, when they finally introduced an all-electric version of the car.
But the numbers never came back up to the glory days. As a last ditch effort, Daimler decided to drop the internal-combustion model in 2017 and focus strictly on electric models — becoming the first automotive brand to do so after Tesla.
(A bit of trivia: The first generation electric Smart cars used technology from Tesla. In an interview, Elon Musk publicly stated Daimler’s purchase of its technology at that time gave his start-up company much-needed cash and recognition among auto manufacturers.)
Going all in with electric cars didn’t help. Sales continued to drop, so in May Daimler finally announced the end of the brand in North America.
Then the federal government announced their $5,000 rebate for electric vehicles.
Cars that had been languishing on dealer lots began to disappear rapidly as consumers rushed to snap up the remaining stock.
The reasoning is simple. A brand new Smart EQ ForTwo has a list price of $29,050. Add the provincial and federal rebates and you get $10,000 off the car, bringing it down to $19,050 — making it the least-expensive EV in Canada.
As a bonus you can opt for a convertible version for $32,050, or $22,050 after rebates.
I managed to find a 2019 model (somebody changed their mind over the colour) to give it one last drive around the block.
When the first Smart cars arrived in 2004 the oft-repeated comment was: “Where’s the rest of your car?”. While you don’t hear that anymore, the fact is that the Smart, at 2,695 millimetres, is less than half the length of a Ford F-150.
No jokes about safety though. Daimler designed a safety cell ‘ they call it Tridion — that has been set as the benchmark for small car safety. Over the years, time and again, it has proved to be a life-saver.
Its small size — it is a micro-car — has endeared itself to minimalists. Despite its dimensions, it can still carry two occupants and a full Costo-sized buggy worth of groceries in the trunk. Needless to say that downtown parking is a breeze.
Many people like its tall, upright seating, giving it good visibility all round — and making it easy to get in and out.
When the Smart was originally conceived in the 80s, it was envisioned as an electric car. Unfortunately, the EV technology at that time was not mature enough to bring it to market.
After a number of limited runs, Smart finally introduced an EV version in 2014.
But its diminutive size meant that the battery would be equally small — which affects range.
With a 100-kilometre range, the Smart faces competitors today that offer nearly three times the mileage. But as an urban car, that’s more than enough for some.
While the electric motor looks the same as the one introduced in 2014, the 2019 car feels a lot perkier, darting in and out of traffic seamlessly. The steering is lighter and the turning radius, at seven metres, is both shocking and welcome in the city (the turning radius of the F-150, by comparison, is 14 metres).
Unfortunately, all this innovation, safety, fuel-efficiency and minimalism just wasn’t enough.
Smart will live on outside of North America — it will continue to be marketed in 44 countries around the world. There is talk of setting up an assembly plant in China. Europe will continue to offer the car alongside the upcoming new Mercedes-Benz line featuring EV-only vehicles.
Despite our modest population, Victoria and Vancouver Island has always led in Smart sales per capita, with a huge fan base. To satisfy recent demand, the local dealer has been buying Smarts from as far away as Ontario.
While some won’t miss the Smart ForTwo, for others it is a melancholy end of a small chapter (sorry) in Canadian automotive history.