Registrations of hybrid vehicles in the United States have fallen some 17% between 2007 and 2009, according to Carscoop. While some of this drop can be explained by the ongoing recession, the decline of hybrid registrations is steeper than declines in other vehicle types. Industry research company R.L. Polk explains that part of the decline is due to changes in state laws, which now exclude hybrid drivers without a passenger from HOV lanes in several states. Other reasons included the obvious response: hybrids aren’t much fun to drive, and handle worse than the economy cars of yore. The Honda CR-Z may have a positive impact on that sentiment, and I can tell you that it was the first hybrid I drove that I didn’t absolutely hate.
Carscoop also tells us that sales of Smart Cars in the US are imploding, with sales down 41% from 2008 to 2009 and down a further 60% YTD 2010. There’s no need to even speculate on the reasons behind this: the Smart is significantly overpriced for the U.S. market, especially when you can buy a base Hyundai Accent for less money. The Hyundai gives up 5 mpg to the Smart, but is a much more practical car with a far better warranty.
The complete absence of marketing effort on behalf of Smart hasn’t helped, either. Smart USA recognizes this, and has hired former Saturn GM Jill Lajdziak to kick off a new print, film and web based ad campaign. Smart’s “street teams” will return as well, offering test rides to willing participants to prove that the Smart is a viable choice for urban commuting.
Two years ago, when gas prices were climbing exponentially, Smart had a reasonable chance at success in the US market. Today, they need to regain ground just to get back to square one, and nearly every manufacturer now has a car more appealing than the Smart. I wish them the best of luck, but I don’t think I’d be investing in a Smart franchise any time soon.