smart USA Signs Memorandum of Understanding With Nissan to Develop Larger Car
By Chris Haak
Hot off this morning’s newswire is news that smart USA has signed a memorandum of understanding with Nissan for the collaboration of a new B-segment (subcompact) five-passenger vehicle to be sold in the US under the smart brand. The new vehicle is expected to go on sale in about a year, in the fourth quarter of 2011. Full terms of the non-binding MOU were not disclosed, and all actions are dependent upon coming to definitive agreements on the transaction.
Daimler and Renault had previously entered into a fairly wide-ranging technology-sharing collaboration earlier this year, and this move is likely related to those efforts. The companies even exchanged equity stakes in one another to put some skin in the game, though this alliance is certainly more limited in scope than the Renault-Nissan alliance that shares CEO Carlos Ghosn. Roger Penske must have forgiven Mr. Ghosn for the latter’s inability to convince Renault’s board to sell rebadged Renaults through Penske’s dealer network as Saturns, since this deal is between the Penske-owned smart USA Distributor LLC and Nissan – not technically between Daimler and Nissan.
The car itself, at least based on the renderings provided by smart USA, appears to be more conventional-looking than the previous smart forfour, which was produced for only between 2004 and 2006. The old fourfour was much more of a traditional car than was the fortwo, and the new one appears to be based on the new 2011 Nissan Micra, so it’s even more of a conventional car.
In fact, we’ll go one step further and call a spade a spade: this future B-segment smart (whose name was not disclosed at this stage) is really only a rebadged Micra. Looking at the shape of the Micra’s taillights and the shape of the smart’s taillights, it’s easy to see that the full-lens version in the Micra were swapped for the familiar circular lenses with body color surrounds in the smart. The front clips between the two cars are similar, though slightly different, and the greenhouse and rear hatch shape appear to be identical. Really, the biggest difference between the renderings and the photos of the bronze 2011 Nissan Micra is the way the renderings had their aspect ratio altered from the Micra’s actual proportions. The Micra, as you can see, is a fairly narrow, upright car, while the smart version’s renderings appear to be nearly squashed. Expect the actual forfour, or whatever it’s to be called, to have much more vertical, smart-like proportions.
The Micra isn’t sold in the US, so I haven’t experienced it firsthand, but the interior appears to be plastic-heavy, which is common among nearly all cars in this segment with just a few partial exceptions (such as the upper dashboard in the Ford Fiesta). Since smart USA didn’t supply any interior renderings, we can only speculate as to whether smart will apply its own interior design touches to the car before it hits the US market, or whether the changes will be purely minor detail alterations like colors and the logo on the steering wheel.
The press release from smart USA made sure to point out that this new car will maintain “the core principles of efficiency and conservation” that are the hallmarks of the smart brand – or at least so says smart USA president (and former Saturn general manager Jill Lajdziak. The reality is that nearly any B-segment car will be efficient and conserve resources relative to the typical US-market new car. The other reality is that smart desperately needs to increase its vehicle sales, and a more practical, mainstream offering will help broaden the brand’s appeal, while at the same time, potentially damaging the very brand that they are trying to save. But smart USA finds itself in a change-or-die situation, with 2010 sales trending far below their 2008 peak of 24,622; in 2009, the brand’s US sales fell 41 percent, and in 2010, they are down another 62 percent this year, to just 4,779 through the first three quarters.
The other factor at play is the impending launch the Scion iQ in the US, which looks very much like it was inspired by the smart fortwo, yet is slightly larger, and – in a masterpiece of packaging – squeezes room for three and a half passengers into a car that is only marginally larger than the two seat-only fortwo. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the iQ selling for around the same money as a fortwo, either, in spite of its larger engine and more practical layout.
At the end of the day, it’s not clear that a conventional small car, coming in a year, will be enough to save smart USA. The fact that Daimler did not choose to invest in development of a unique smart-only model – and that it intends to apparently only sell this new car in the US and not in the rest of the world – seems to speak to the regard in which Daimler’s management holds smart. That is, perhaps they are tired of throwing good money at their struggling small-car brand after all of these years, and global sales struggling to eclipse the 100,000 mark.