The first Smart came onto the market 25 years ago. But after the attempted revolution came disillusionment: how the former rebel grew up.
It’s been a quarter of a century since the two and a half meter short Smart celebrated its world premiere at the international automobile trade fair in Frankfurt. The idea for the mini car came from Swatch inventor Nicolas Hayek, which is why the car was originally called the “Swatch Car”.
A mobility revolution was planned
Hayek’s vision: a high-quality, cost-effective and environmentally friendly electric car. After a failed attempt with VW, Hayek brought the idea of the ecological small car to life in cooperation with Mercedes-Benz. Hence the name “Smart”: S stands for Swatch, M for Mercedes and Art for the art of building this car.
Smart models over time
1 / 5
1998 – Smart Fortwo
2 / 5
2003 – Smart Roadster Cabrio
Getty Images/Heritage Images
3 / 5
2013 – Smart Fortwo Coupé Brabus
4 / 5
2016 – Smart Fortwo Cabrio
5 / 5
Legend: 2021 – Smart #1 Reuters/Andreas Gebert
Environmental considerations were already crucial for Hayek in 1994. He was bothered by the fact that most of the cars drove around half empty. So why build larger cars than two-seaters and thus unnecessarily waste space and materials and at the same time pollute the environment, Hayek asked himself. Touted as the “car of the future,” the Smart was supposed to be the answer to this question. The target audience for the light, agile city car was young, urban singles and childless couples.
But the collaboration with Mercedes-Benz did not go as hoped either. The car did not meet Hayek’s expectations. Among other things, it ran with a combustion engine instead of a more ecological electric motor as originally planned. The watch pioneer sold all of its shares shortly after sales began.
SUVs are in demand, not small cars
The early share sale turned out to be the right thing to do. According to mobility expert Thomas Sauter-Servaes, the trend towards more ecological small cars has not been confirmed. The project with the aim of revolutionizing city transport failed.
Drivers wanted to be able to do everything with their car: go on vacation, transport shopping or pick up the children. That’s why the trend today is still towards large cars such as sport utility vehicles (SUVs).
Legend: When it went on sale in 1998, the Smart Tower caused a stir in Wallisellen. KEYSTONE/Walter Bieri
The low demand was also reflected in the sales figures. The Smart’s sales launch in 1998 was slow – the first model only got going five years after its launch. By 2020, Mercedes-Benz recorded Smart sales of around 2,000 units per year in Switzerland. This corresponds to a negligible market share of less than one percent. Sales figures collapsed completely due to corona-related delivery bottlenecks and the semiconductor crisis. To date, sales have not recovered.
Larger Smart version
Mercedes-Benz responded with a larger version of the Smart and in 2020 joined forces with Chinese automaker Geely to become one of the leaders in the premium electric vehicle segment. Today, the vehicles hardly differ from other models in the same vehicle class, says Thomas Sauter-Servaes. “You have said goodbye to wanting to be something very special.”
The former rebel has grown up at the age of 25 and is adapting to the crowd in order to continue to survive in the market.