Smart Car Offering National Lease Program

Smart CarSmart USA Distributor LLC, a unit of Penske Automotive and U.S. distributor of Daimler's Smart Car subsidiary, says it has launched the first national lease incentive through Daimler Financial Services. The company says it is the brand's strength in the U.S. that allows the deal.

The Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Penkse is offering a 36-month, $169-per-month, 10,000 miles-per-year lease. The company is requiring $999 down, a $595 acquisition fee and the first month's payment at the time of lease for the program, which runs through the month of February.

"This is the first national lease program we have launched, though we have had pilot programs," says Smart's head spokesperson, Ken Kettenbeil. "We have two years' data on residual value and about 40,000 owners, so the timing was right to offer such a program and give customers another option."



He says that Smart is looking at national marketing programs to tout the leasing deal. "We have done a little national advertising in the past, primarily in print and some digital. And dealers have been advertising. We have dealer co-op material in queue to promote this program; they will advertise in their markets and so will we -- and we are looking at a national approach, most likely digital."

The company also has a product-placement strategy to get the cars into TV and film, using L.A.-based Vista Group for product placement.

The company, which has some 77 "Smart Center" dealers in 36 states, recently tapped Jill Lajdziak, former general manager of GM's soon-to-be-defunct Saturn brand, to be president of Smart USA. Smart initially hired Lajdziak late last year to run sales and marketing. She replaces Dave Schembri, a former Mercedes-Benz marketer who was hired to launch Smart in the U.S. after a brief stint at Mitsubishi.

Smart has focused some of its European TV marketing on the fact that despite of the car's size, it has enough interior room for two large occupants. That and safety are going to be critical messages in the U.S. for Smart. Marketing firm Mintel, in a 2009 study, notes that rising obesity rates and heights in the U.S. mean greater need for head, leg, and hip room.

The firm says that while small vehicles are hampered by the perception that they are cramped inside, "the huge decline in SUV sales is causing consumers to look at other vehicle segments and manufacturers to change how they approach marketing in relation to space, storage, and comfort concepts."

The company sold 864 cars in December, a 63% drop versus the month in 2008. The company sold 14,595 units last year, over 40% fewer than in 2008.

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