• Jan 13, 2011
As the photo above from this year's Detroit Auto Show clearly shows, Smart USA is about more than the ForTwo these days. This is probably a good thing, because 2010 wasn't all that great a year for the brand, saleswise. Smart USA president Jill Lajdziak and Kim McGill, Smart USA's vice president of marketing and advertising sat down with AutoblogGreen to talk about where the company is today and what's on tap for tomorrow.

A year ago, at the 2010 Detroit show, Lajdziak told AutoblogGreen that a "lifestyle" message campaign could help boost sales. That didn't happen. Instead, 2010 sales dropped like a cannonball thrown overboard (
59.4 percent) to just 5,927 unit, down from 14,595 sales in 2009. With gas prices trending northward recently, December 2010 sales jumped 170 percent compared to the month before, and the ever-confident Lajdziak told AutoblogGreen this year that:
I think we're in far better shape this January than we were in January a year ago. Last year, we had about 3,500 past-model-year vehicles in place. This year, we have about 700. From a pure inventory standpoint, we are absolutely in the right place. Job one was getting that inventory right-sized. With a niche product, you can't chase volume with incentives. That's not healthy for the brand. The market place is going to pull this product and that's another reason we had to get the inventory in shape. We are focused on growing the brand long-term and adding to the portfolio.
What does that last line mean, exactly? With a scooter and a bike on display, with the expansion of the Austin, TX Car2Go carsharing program and with sales declining, is Smart a "car" brand that's getting ready to move away from private car ownership entirely? Of course not. Last fall, Smart USA announced a new partnership with Nissan for a five-door, gasoline powered, B-segment vehicle in the U.S. Lajdziak also said that
The scooter and the bike are out here to see consumer reaction to it. If it makes sense as another element to meet their needs from a mobility standpoint, it will be great. I think if you're a car brand, you're going to be grounded in some type of vehicle but it can always be augmented by other things.
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The Car2Go carsharing program in Austin (and similar programs in Europe, all of which are run by Daimler, not Smart USA) has already taught the company a lot about both the marketplace and how people want to use Fortwos. The latest batch of cars that Smart USA, the distributor for the Austin program, will have new telematics devices to collect even more data on vehicle usage. McGill said that carsharing is just one way a Fortwo can fit into a person's life:
The brand stands for the epitome of efficiency. When we delve deep into our owners and how their belief structure works, these aren't exactly minimalists or super-environmentalists, they're more about right-fit, right-sizing everything in their life. They want to remain unencumbered and what we call issue excess. They tend to be more affluent and highly educated, but they are not about showing off their financial status by possessing a lot of goods that are only there to impress others. Again, they're not minimalists, so they will indulge in things that make them really happy, but it's all about the right fit. And that's exactly where our car comes into play, because it is designed and engineered for the right fit. There's nothing easier and more flexible than getting in your Smart car and going from point A to point B.
McGill also said that the 2010 sales decline is not as bad as it looks, since buying a Fortwo is more like buying a boat or an RV instead of purchasing a primary car, and the decline is about on par with declines in these other categories. She said Smart is really trying to emphasize the fit of the car to the lifestyle – i.e., you don't need an SUV to move one person and a briefcase – as it moves forward. Sometimes, though, you do need a bigger car than the ForTwo, and that's where the partnership with Nissan comes in. Lajdziak said:
We've got a lot of sweat equity in this. It is a Smart USA initiative. We thought it was necessary, for the U.S. marketplace, to grow the portfolio faster than the product that will be coming from Daimler through the alliance. This is where it gets a little complicated. Last spring, Daimler annouced an alliance with Renault for the next-generation Smart car and portfolio. That product is coming in 2014, mid-decade. We formed a partnership with Nissan to bring a B-segment vehicle to the marketplace later this year.
And that's what will happen. The company will unveil the car in the first half of 2011, but don't look for it to debut at the New York Auto Show. As a smaller company with a smaller car, "We will probably choose something other than an auto show," Lajdziak said. I guess that's what Smart would call finding the right fit.


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