Daimler subsidiary Smart set a new sales record last year by increasing its global volume 21 percent to 144,479 units. The small-car brand expects to top that figure in the future even without adding a model in the booming SUV/crossover segment. Annette Winkler, who has been head of Smart since 2010, discussed her plans with Automotive News Europe Associate Publisher and Editor Luca Ciferri.
Low fuel prices traditionally slow the growth of small cars. How does Smart defend against this?
That certainly has an effect and always will. On the other hand, you can see an ongoing downsizing trend in the industry. This can bring further potential for our brand. We also see a growing number of people who want to have a big car for long distances, but keep a small car in the family as a second or third option. The lack of space in big cities is also becoming more dramatic and painful as the number of global megacities is still increasing. Just look at China. There are more than 150 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants. Therefore, I'm confident there is room for Smart to grow further.
Does Smart really need the four-door ForFour in its lineup?
The pillar of the brand is the ForTwo, but one-third of our record sales last year – about 145,000 units – were the ForFour, a model that perfectly completes our portfolio with a very compact urban four-seater. We also have markets where demand for the ForFour is even higher than it is for the ForTwo, such as Taiwan, the Netherlands and Japan.
Still no plans for a small crossover?
In this current generation of models, I don't see the necessity for a crossover. We should also stick to what Smart always wanted to be and was invented to be: the perfect city car with smart solutions that provide more quality of life in an urban environment. Investing in services that combine the smartphone with the Smart car is more important to our customers than the number of variants.
Why is Smart focusing only on electric cars in the U.S.?
With the previous generation, in peak times electric variants were responsible for a quarter of our U.S. sales and more than 50 percent in Canada. We think that this openness to the electric drive from our customers is very important and my view is that the Smart EV is the smartest Smart ever. Secondly, there is a business impact for us. The microcar segment in the U.S. is shrinking more and more, so it makes sense to focus on the variant that has the bigger potential. In the U.S., this is certainly the electric drive.
But isn't concentrating on EVs the first step out of the U.S. market?
No, not at all, this was a strategically motivated decision. We truly think that the Smart electric drive perfectly fits the U.S. market and our target group. Our customers are challenging the status quo. They are really out of the box thinkers and thus very open to alternative drives, such as our electric cabriolet. There are no other battery-only open cars so it is a perfect proposition for states such as California and Florida. Also, don't forget that Smart was invented from the very beginning to become electric.
Are there other markets where Smart could become an EV-only brand?
No. First at all, many markets aren't ready for an electric-only strategy because of a lack of infrastructure. Secondly, there is a considerable number of customers who still prefer the combustion engine. Therefore, we will continue offering conventional and electric drives in most markets. When it comes to the mix, we can easily adapt to changing market requirements because we are totally flexible in production.