It was as close as you can get to the opening scene in a spy movie. Urgent mission? Check. Secret route through Spanish piazzas? Check. Tiny car that makes 89 horsepower? Check.
Smart, the mini car brand owned by Mercedes-Benz , sent a squad of automotive journalists on a scavenger hunt through Valencia in the new cabrio version of the Smart fortwo roadster to see what it can do. An hour into the hunt, our rear-wheel drive, three-cylinder turbocharged companion proved adept at making tight turns, darting through congested city streets and, of course, being cute.
But the Smart fortwo, which is shorter than my living room couch, turned out to be our best asset in this low-speed chase (it was siesta time, after all) through Spain’s third-largest city. No other car could execute successive hairpin turns through narrow, Old World alleys as we raced our enemies (ahem, colleagues) to the next checkpoint.
“Now we test the turning circle on this,” my partner for the hunt said as we squeezed through an impossibly tight turn in search of another gothic monument.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the question “How small is the turning circle of all current Smart fortwo models?” counted among our scavenger hunt tasks. I googled the answer as my drive partner whipped the car down a corner to find the street art that would help us answer questions 4, 5 and 6.Google GOOGL +1.16%’s response: an improbably small 22.8 feet or, because we are in Spain, 6.95 meters.
Smart, which continues to grow by double-digits in Europe and will enter China later this year, has attained cult-status in some global markets for its cheerful body and ability to squeeze into any parking spot. The cabrio version is among the top five registered convertibles in Germany.
Its status in the U.S., where Smart will launch the fortwo cabrio this summer as a 2017 model, is less certain. The company hasn’t revealed pricing for the new car but said it’s committed to making it the most affordable convertible on the market.
That promise could help counter Smart’s checkered sales record here. The numbers suggest it’s an awkward time to trot out a new cabrio. The car made a splash when it launched in the U.S. in 2008, selling what proved to be an unsustainable 24,600 units. That number dropped by 10,000 the following year. Since 2010, sales have only risen above 10,000 units twice – and fell to half as much in 2011. Last year, after a brief rise, sales plummeted 28.4% to 7,484.
But the latest Smart iteration seems to be entering the U.S. market with this trademark ethos of cheer and optimism, based on comments from Smart C.E.O. Annette Winklerwhen we returned from our scavenger hunt in a unanimous, six-way tie.
“Smart customers are always very optimistic,” Winkler said. “They enjoy the joie de vivre. They love the big cities. Driving a Smart is a statement: ‘I don’t like mainstream.’”