Why Mercedes-Benz Needs To Make Smart The Next MINI

Opinion

Smart can become the next big premium niche brand. Here's how.

When the Smart brand first launched to the world in 1998, the Swatch-owned car manufacturer catered to a new audience, one that wanted an ultra-compact city car the likes of which had only been seen in Japanese Kei-cars, which of course never made it outside of Japan. In small European cities, it was a massive compact success, providing a new means of mobility in cities where space was particularly cramped and where self-mobility was key to success. But where other compact brands like Mini managed to sky-rocket from their renaissance forth, Smart has somewhat stagnated. If Mercedes-Benz wants Smart to be a success, a real success, they need to make Smart the next Mini.

The Rise and Fall of Smart

With early success, the brand expanded their product line-up, adding a 4-door, 4-seat hatch called the ForFour, and a compact 2 seat sports car called the Smart Roadster. The Roadster was a cool little thing, offering thrills at low speeds and funky styling that had the potential to unlock a new market for Smart altogether. But the success was short-lived and from 2003 onwards, the brand posted significant losses. Then, fully under the custodianship of Mercedes-Benz, Smart pared back its product line-up, canceling production of the Roadster and ForFour, and binning the planned crossover SUV, called the ForMore. Of course in the USA, Smart only debuted in 2008, after all those extra models had been canceled.

The Smart ForTwo still enjoyed some success, with sales reps being particularly fond of its park-anywhere attributes and super economical fuel consumption. In 2016, the new third-generation ForTwo was launched, offering funkier styling than ever before, in both a coupe and cabrio package. It was a relatively short-lived introduction though, as at the end of 2017 the brand discontinued gasoline-powered models in favor of an all-electric strategy going forward, selling only the Electric Drive variants.

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Whilst the eco-warriors may praise the move to electric mobility, those who were fans of gasoline model Smarts could no longer support the brand, with many sales reps – staple buyers of Smart models – claiming the electric range of the Smart ForTwo electric drive was a serious damper on the other positive aspects of the ForTwo.

Smart now caters to a very select audience and though electric mobility might be the future, their move to full EV has reduced their current pool of potential buyers substantially. That’s not the kind of thing a brand like Mercedes-Benz wants, especially when the Smart brand has so much potential to be so much more as a small car brand.

Potential for What?

As the model line-ups for premium brands grow larger with each passing generation, premium brands start filling in from the bottom. For Audi, it’s the Q2, for Volvo, the XC40. BMW has started filling the junior premium segment with a raft of MINI vehicles that have evolved beyond compact city car into true junior premium models. Smart has the same potential as MINI had when BMW reinvented them, and Mercedes-Benz would be wise to utilize their sub-brand to access a new audience the main brand doesn’t appeal to in the same way.

When it comes to premium and niche vehicles, brand perception counts for a lot. In the case of Mercedes-Benz, the perception is one of them being aimed at an older target audience. While their designs may evolve to look slicker and their technology is advancing at a rapid rate to appeal to a technocentric society, the perception of the brand isn’t changing as rapidly. With the introduction of smaller models, such as the CLA and GLA, some Mercedes-Benz models are now cheaper and more accessible, but only a select few of ‘the youth’ are able to get behind the wheel or have the aspiration to do so.

AMG models are even more exclusive; and by Mercedes’ own admission, even with the addition of the CLA and GLA AMG models, the average age of AMG buyers is still around the 50-year old mark. That leaves three decades of untapped buyers looking for something more youthful. A Mercedes-badged model will never be able to tap that market, but Mercedes-Benz already has a sub-brand capable, and Smart is just waiting to be unleashed.

How can Smart emulate MINI

Smart needs to emulate the competition if they wish to succeed, and they need to start with design. Their current design language is great – it looks funky, and the array of colors and customization available makes the ForTwo an alluring option. But just because the design is sorted, doesn’t mean they’re on the right path, yet. The ForTwo is a good start, but Smart needs something more.

More models are what’s required; something new to widen the appeal of the brand. The ForFour available in Europe and other markets might offer more space, but Smart needs something trendier – Smart needs a crossover. They need to revive the ForMore concept and build it into a viable crossover platform, expanding the Smart brand as one that can cater for families too. They need to shed the mentality that they exist purely as a ‘city car brand’ and develop themselves as something more. Just as Mini no longer manufactures small cars to live up to its nameplate, Smart must do the same. In addition to an SUV, a larger family hatchback is needed, too.

But with more models, Smart needs to ensure that every one of them appeals to a younger audience. Style is one way of doing so, but the other is to ensure that the models feature high levels of technology, innovative interior designs with display screens, mobile connectivity, and advanced safety features.

But Smart need not abandon all aspects of their current trajectory. Their focus on electric mobility can remain, however, the changeover needs to be more gradual. Unless Smart intends on releasing Chevrolet Bolt-like batteries for its vehicles, they’ll need to move forward with a range of mild- and full-hybrid vehicles that enable efficiency, eco-consciousness, and impressive performance. Using Mercedes-Benz’ EQ Boost technology with low-displacement, 3-cylinder engines, Smart could even build performance variants to rival MINI’s JCW models, all without compromising on their move towards eco-friendliness.

Next Step: Success

MINI drew plenty ire when they expanded their model range and made their vehicles larger and more powerful. “It’s no longer Mini,” people said, and yet those same people probably own MINIs now, and love every minute with their Mini.

Mini opened up BMW to a new audience, and Mercedes-Benz has the opportunity to do the same with Smart. Sometimes, imitation is the easiest way to succeed, but with a little forward-thinking, Smart has the potential to succeed hugely in exposing the Mercedes-Benz brand to an audience 20-30 years younger than current buyers.

All it takes is a little out of the box thinking from a brand that once pioneered city mobility.

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