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Smaller parking spots: Smart’s plan for growth

Annette Winkler, global head of Smart, says the mini-car is attractive to urbanites.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

In Japan, you can't buy a car unless you can prove you have somewhere to park it. In major cities in Canada, Mercedes-Benz Canada Inc. is trying to persuade condo developers to provide dedicated spaces for owners of its Smart micro-cars.

The size of the Smart car – 2.69 metres in length, or a little more than half the length of a typical compact vehicle – represents a critical selling point for the car in major urban areas in Canada, Annette Winkler, global head of Smart and a vice-president of its parent company Daimler AG, said Thursday.

As a result, Mercedes-Benz Canada signed a deal last week with a downtown Toronto parking lot operator that provides four spots reserved only for Smart cars, and a 30-per-cent discount for those drivers on the regular daily parking rate.

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"For this to start really being interesting on a larger scale, we estimate that we need at least two dozen or so in Toronto," Mercedes-Benz Canada Inc. president Tim Reuss said Thursday.

The auto maker is in discussions with other parking lot operators to provide more dedicated parking spots, and with condo developers to do the same thing or to offer building residents a Smart car that they can share.

Such initiatives and an expansion of Daimler's car2go Canada Ltd. car-sharing franchise (a subsidiary of Daimler) beyond the Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto markets have already helped boost sales of Smart cars in Canada by about 30 per cent this year, even though the vehicle has not undergone a major redesign since it was first introduced in Europe 15 years ago.

"You have to have a unique selling proposition for the cities which will make us different from the competition," Ms. Winkler told reporters at a company training facility before meeting with the auto maker's Canadian dealers to brief them about plans for the brand.

Those plans include the first major redesign of the car, which will be introduced in late 2014 in Europe and on sale in Canada as a 2015 model-year offering. A larger version that doubles capacity to four people is also in the works for European markets in 2014, but at the moment there are no plans to sell it in Canada.

Mr. Reuss said he's pushing hard to persuade Ms. Winkler that that four-seater version will also make sense in Canada.

But the two-seater will remain at 2.69 metres, she said, pointing out that even though it's relatively expensive for it size, buyers can be compensated in other ways.

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The 33-per-cent parking lot discount, for example, works out to $100 a month in savings for drivers, based on a $10 a day instead of $15.

"That's why I am so happy about those parking spaces in Toronto," Ms. Winkler said.

She noted that in five or six cities in Germany, Smart car drivers can bypass the lineups to enter and exit parking lots if they sign up for electronic payment and on many ferry services, the fees for Smart owners are 30 per cent lower than those with standard-sized vehicles.

The car2go program now involves more than 300 Smart cars shared by drivers in each of the three cities in Canada where it is available. The initial fee is $35 and drivers can pay 38 cents a minute or $13.99 an hour to use vehicles.

Sales of Smart cars in Canada rose to 1,868 in the first nine months of the year from 1,445 a year earlier.

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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