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With the Smart SUV, Mercedes adds another nail to the minicar’s coffin

Even the company most famous for its little two-seaters has shifted its focus to sport utility vehicles.

The Mercedes-Benz Smart Fortwo is one of those cars that has a distinctive position in the history of automobile design.

The two-seater, which was introduced in 1998 and was 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) long and 1.5 meters broad, weighed around 800 pounds and cost less than 9,000 euros ($9,791), making it an easy-to-park and economical option for city dwellers. Mercedes marketed the automobiles to a design-conscious urban crowd by stacking them in display case-like glass towers. The automobile was included to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2002.

In Europe, the Smart did reasonably well, helping Mercedes balance the emissions of its gas-guzzling sedans. But, particularly in the United States, where large pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles are all the rage, the model never took off to the extent that the carmaker had hoped. The SUV mania quickly expanded across Europe, practically obliterating the microcar.

Last week, Mercedes-Benz and its Chinese partner Geely introduced a redesigned Smart that is larger, heavier, and more expensive than the previous model.

The #1 — repeat after me, without cringing: The new Smart, dubbed “Hashtag One,” is a battery-powered small SUV with a range of 440 kilometers (237 miles) and a stylishly basic interior. It’s also 4.27 meters long, about the same length as a Volkswagen ID.3, and weights nearly two tons.

Although the firms have not stated a beginning price, I’ve seen estimations ranging from 30,000 to 40,000 euros. That doesn’t exactly appeal to the original Smart audience.

Some of the innovative microcars that sparked public interest in the early 2000s — such as the Tata Nano city car, which cost around $2,500 when it debuted in India in 2008 — have since been abandoned, owing to the fact that they never made a profit.

Because they must invest heavily in electrifying lines and retooling facilities, mass-market manufacturers are prioritizing margins over volume these days. The industry’s march upward has been accelerated by a global chip shortage and rising raw-materials costs.

Smart is entering an increasingly crowded market with its tiny electric SUV. After opening factories in Texas and Germany, Tesla will be able to produce more Model Ys.

Volkswagen will begin production of the ID.4 electric SUV in Tennessee later this year, and BMW introduced the iX last year, a battery-powered SUV that has received positive reviews. According to Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based independent auto expert, SUVs accounted for around half of the EV market in Western Europe after the first two months of the year.

The urge to become bigger and more upmarket is pricing a rising number of individuals out of the new-vehicle market, especially when personal salaries haven’t kept up with the constant rise in prices. Market shifts, as they always do, will create new opportunities, notably for used vehicle dealers and more budget-conscious automakers like Kia and Skoda.

There will be new segments opening because of rising prices for new cars, Schmidt said. We will see a lot more subscription models, where you can join a car club for two or three months.

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