Some people don’t know when to quit. Chuck Wepner was one of these people. Wepner was famous for two things as a heavyweight boxer in the 1970s: having his face broken open (his nickname was The Bleeder) and going 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in a title match for the championship. Ali, not surprisingly, beat the living daylights out of Wepner. On a world record list of tolerating senseless brutalization for far too long without admitting defeat or changing tactics, Wepner ranks high. On a list of successes, not so much.
Much the same could be said of the Mercedes-Benz urban mobility subsidiary known as Smart. The company has spent almost 10 years in the American market now, building and attempting to sell an unerringly similar recipe of small, uncomfortable, homely, cheap, uninspired, inefficient, overpriced, subpar, fun-colored, rear-engine city vehicles – and has not gained an iota of traction. With all of the power and glory of the three-pointed star behind it, the brand last year ranked in the bottom three of total sales, just above Alfa Romeo, which had no cars to sell, and Bentley, which prides itself on selling as few cars as possible. Sales for 2016 were down 17 percent. They’re down nearly 20 percent more from there thus far in 2017. Alfa Romeo has sold more cars.
Yet, instead of giving up and going away, the brand has decided to stick around for a few more rounds. One would think that this might demonstrate a willingness to learn from its big mistakes, which include making cars that are worse than anything in or around the their price or size segment – including a lot of great cars like the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta. And Smart’s big move — an announcement that, starting in 2018, it will sell only pure electric vehicles in the States — indicates some sense of prescience and topicality.
The EV market is maturing and growing, moving out from early adopters to fast followers and perhaps even beginning to trickle down into the mainstream, so the time seems ripe to jump on the bandwagon. And Mercedes is investing heavily in electric power, planning to develop a full range of vehicles under its EQ sub-brand, so Smart can clearly capitalize on some of that knowhow.
Unfortunately, after having spent an afternoon in Switzerland test driving the first of these vehicles to be released in America, the 2017 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive Cabrio, we can attest to the fact that the brand has not learned anything, but simply converted their previous losing formula to run on electricity.
Which is to say that brand is still making terrible cars that are worse than just about anything in or around their price and size segment, including a lot of great cars like the Volkswagen e-Golf, Fiat 500e, and Nissan Leaf. Saying that a vehicle is worse than a Nissan Leaf is really saying something.
The main problem with the Smart is that it is, on nearly every level, less than meets the eye, which is difficult for a car that is only 9 feet long. The body is covered in cheap injection-molded panels that look like they fell off the swim toys in a rehabilitative physical therapy pool. This theme carries over to the inside – inasmuch as there is an inside, which there really isn’t, just two barstools set up inside a tragic universe of mismatched petrochemical schmutz. The dashboard is covered in a mesh fabric made from discarded black nylon socks. The speedometer is made from the top half of a Fisher Price construction helmet.
The infotainment interface is neither informative nor entertaining, and appears to consist of a thin film of Saran Wrap surrounding infuriating incompetence. Go ahead, ask it how to get out of Geneva. It will send you in an endless loop up and down one corner of the lake, zoom out infinitely to show you your position in approximate relation to Mars, and then fritz out uncontrollably until you finally relent and open Google Maps on your phone.
Did we mention that the car is slower, less spacious, and more expensive than any of its competitors? 60 mph arrives in nearly 12 seconds. It has only two seats, and less cargo room than a Speedo worn by Kevin James. We only drove the $28,000 convertible, but there’s a $24,000 coupe as well. It can travel only 70 miles on a charge.
With its battery pack down low and its motor over the rear wheels, the Fortwo seems far more stable than the rollerskating waiter is actually is. It does have one advantage, if you don’t count the ability to elicit sympathy from other drivers: It has an extremely tight turning radius.
This is practical, not only because the navigation system forks up so frequently that you will constantly find yourself pulling U-turns (we made five in an hour), but because if you find yourself in the unfortunate position of entering a Smart dealership, you can use this capacity to turn around immediately. You’ve got nothing to prove by taking it on the chin endlessly from a Fortwo ED. Don’t be a Wepner: Tap out and nurse your wounds in, well, anything else.