Like Rolls-Royces: bought by the discerning few

Like Rolls-Royces: bought by the discerning few

Might the initial results of a strategy which has been Smart US dropping its petrol-powered Fortwo range hold a warning for others? In November, the brand was not only outsold by Lamborghini, but Rolls-Royce was the only make which delivered fewer cars.

As from the 2018 model year, plug-in variants have become the only Smarts sold in the US and Canada. The importer for Mexico is going its own way. The Forfour, which has never been offered in the other two NAFTA countries, continues to be available there, although neither the Fortwo nor its five-door equivalent are offered in this market with electric drive. It will be fascinating to see how Smart sales fare in each of the three countries during 2018.

Year to date, Smart US has delivered a mere 2,905 cars. The equivalent for Europe (as defined by JATO Dynamics) is 83,294 units, a 4.4% drop, although of course that includes the Forfour. US sales were down by 76.9% compared to November 2016. Over the 11 months, the plunge was 42.2%. Had it not been for Rolls-Royce deliveries, Smart would have been the US market's most exclusive brand last month. Just 130 Fortwos were sold, versus 111 R-Rs (up 37%). Lamborghini delivered 139 cars, Bentley's total was 247 and Ferrari, the only other marque with registrations in three figures, sold 251 supercars. Poor Smart.

What does all of this say? Well, it could be seen as a warning to those OEMs which are rushing headlong into speculating on the future popularity of so-called 'E-mobility'. As a journalist, I must remain neutral, and my mind open to the possibilities ahead. Some days, as the inbox groans with an invasion of the latest press releases gushing about 'mobility solutions', 'electromobility', 'connectivity', 'digital solutions', 'the information superhighway' and 'Industry 4.0', it can be a trial to find the facts amongst the buzzwords. Let's leave 'iconic', 'flagship store', 'dynamic', 'keynote', 'brand ambassador' and 'brand pillars' to one side too.

If Smart cannot sell more than a handful of electric cars in the world's second largest market for passenger vehicles, then what does it say about all the vast amounts of money being spent by Tier 1s and OEMs? Perhaps Fiat Chrysler is correct in having held back for so long when it comes to EVs. And Toyota, and Honda. The latter two are now cautiously moving towards building fully electric vehicles on a relatively large scale from 2019 onwards. But neither seems aggressively enthusiastic about them.

Aside from Europe, where its performance and planning have been close to tragic, Honda has always been the company to watch. Big V8 sedans for Acura? No. Lots and lots of factory building? No. For these reasons, the company came out of the Great Recession almost unscathed, while Toyota had to move quickly to mothball new US plants.

Honda is not putting a lot of money into EVs. I am not sold on the looks of the Mirai or any of the three Clarity cars, and there are big question marks over just how environmentally friendly the current sourcing of hydrogen is for fuel cell vehicles. I do though, admire Toyota and Honda for persisting with developing a variety of options when it comes to powertrains for today and tomorrow. That is also my ongoing issue with Tesla Motors. Plus the fact that few are asking what ought to be the most important question: if we are going to do away with fossil-based fuels, then we must find ways of ensuring that electric buses, trucks and cars are powered only by renewable, safe and non-polluting energy. Which, after Chernobyl and Fukushima, must mean wind, tidal, solar, geothermal and hydro only.

What to make then of Daimler's bet on trying to sell tiny electric cars to people who, time and again, when the price of gasoline surges, rush to discard their large SUVs and sedans? Almost always in favour of slightly smaller ones, or if funds for a new vehicle are tight, it seems to be a long-time trend that a second-hand vehicle which isn't especially small is chosen. Much of the success of Tesla has been the result of Elon Musk's astute observation of Americans' vehicle-leasing habits. Yes, the Civic is the best selling car in the the United States, but even it is a compact, not a subcompact or city-sized model. The Model S is huge, as is the Model X, and the Model 3 is sized in what Europeans would think of as the Passat segment.

As has been noticed by many others, Tesla does not make money. Rather, it loses a spectacular amount. Leaving that to one side, what the company has done must be admired. Which is getting people interested in the idea of cars which will one day do a lot less harm to the planet than current vehicles do.

Some of us have left what people now term 'megacities' (three times in my case). To me, that means an all too often horrid place, full of noise and queues and high prices and tiny homes and quick-to-anger people who have been forced to live with too much stress. Into such places EVs are being inserted. The West End of London will be an infinitely more pleasant district as the awful diesel taxis steadily disappear. Yet the buses and trucks remain. Noise pollution is far more confronting than what I can no longer see being pushed out of tailpipes.

For these and other reasons, the Smart Fortwo electric drive deserves to be better loved. It is a fun little car to drive, and crucially, it plays a role in making cities quieter, while the emissions which it generates are at worst piped into the air from the smoke stacks of far-away biomass, gas, oil or coal power stations. On the rare occasion when one whirs past me, I am happy to see it. As I am when instead, it's an E-Up, Zoe, i3, e-Golf, Leaf or Tesla. And as that list should make obvious, we need more electric cars, and for them to be in many shapes and sizes. Just as long as the power which propels them isn't doing as much or more harm to the earth than what the best low-emissions combustion engines can presently achieve.