Interview: Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener on Smart EQ’s Refreshed Future

In Valencia, the 100% electric vehicle declares the brand's future-forward intentions

Easy to drive, spritely, agile and ideal for city use, the refreshed line of smart EQ vehicles—the 2020 two-seat fortwo coupe and fortwo cabrio and the four-seat forfour—are now only offered as electric (and are no longer being sold in the US, sadly). This mid-cycle refresh touches most of the exterior (the new LED tail-lights are a highlight) and interior, but not the batteries or drivetrains. Unchanged from the previous models, they can charge from 10% to 80% in less than 40 minutes and a full charge in under an hour using a 22kW charger, and also have a range up to 133km—plenty for city driving and suburban errands.

On a test drive for the range in Valencia earlier this year we spoke with Gorden Wagener, chief design office of Daimler AG, who shared his thoughts on their fresh new look and the future of the now all-electric brand.

This is a big leap for smart. Can you tell us what we’re looking at?

The most innovative part is the front end, which we’ve used to give it a new identity. Actually it’s two different things. You may have seen slides of the very first smart from 1998, which was the coolest design piece back in those days. The idea was, you can exchange panels and you can customize your car and so on. And this is how smart was born. In fact, the front end was always like the “smart head,” with eyes on top and a low mouth, and we actually got to get back to that with the identity of this new vehicle.

What’s changed then with the front end? 

We removed the logo on it—it’s just with the smart word to represent the brand. That is simply more clear. smart will always be a friendly brand so we kept the “smile on the face” at least on one model—you will see that the other ones are different. There’s a very sporty edition. But for all of this we made smart a purely electric brand and therefor the grille can be more seamlessly integrated into the body because electric cars breathe less air—it basically doesn’t need much air at all. And so we create something very modern, contemporary and eco-friendly with this design. The second car, the sportier model, it’s aggressive—a bit more mean looking. And so it differentiates the two cars and gives each separate character.

What about the inside—and tech?

You can integrate your Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and really make this a rolling smartphone. Of course, we updated all materials. There’s a nice carbon look inside. We made a new center console and have USB ports, extra functionality, cupholders, and everything else you need to drive around the city. We’re working with our friends at Geely, and with this joint venture we are creating that process for the future. The generation after this year, the story will continue as a family.

Using design as a tool that allows you to solve a problems, how did you approach this next generation and deliver a small urban utility vehicle?

We start with strategy. We start by thinking about the car before we execute the first line on paper. We think about the brand, what it’s about, what’s the brand’s philosophy. And we always start with the proportions. It’s important, especially when you want to make clean designs and structure. Because otherwise, later on, you have to structure it by adding stuff and we don’t like that. It’s a more sophisticated approach to take stuff out, to reduce.

We love how the app now has the ability to measure things virtually and tell you how best to put it all into the smart. 

When you look at our smart website, there are reconfiguration options that just makes life easy.

You can’t be equally excited about every product that you work on?

I am.

It seems like you are genuinely, and have always been, really interested in smart—it’s something you’re really passionate about.

Always. I want to push this brand and we’re not there yet—not where I see smart going. But we will get there. This new smart is one step on that path. There are more to come, not so deep into the future.

How did the budget constraints help with design?

You know, design is, to a certain point, intellectual and from certain point on, it’s about context: how much value you want to offer, especially when you want to do high-class designs. Even though everybody’s talking about digital, hyper-analog is for me. So the, the essence of luxury, you know, it’s timeless, like a watch, that will forever be passed on to the next generation. It’s like Patek Philippe: you don’t own it, you just keep it for the next generation. It’s kind of kind of true here too. smart, I consider it a luxury brand in the compact segment. Whatever we go, it’s luxury.

You mentioned that you were really excited about working toward evolving the smart even more. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means? How will you reconcile utility, mobility and urban luxury?

I actually don’t care about utility so much. But, our designers—smart designers—are always drawing these cartoons. smart as a company started when the baby, our first generation, was born—and it was little. Then, the second generation grew up to be a little bit more evolutionary and the third generation, now, is probably like a teenager. As smart grows up it becomes more sporty and perhaps even sexy as it becomes more self-confident.

We thought the interior of the one we drove, with the wood inside, is really, really nice. That one piece made it feel completely different from our memories of previous smarts.

Yeah, carbon trim, as well. But even on the exterior, when you see the front end, the look in its eyes is very determined now. It’s a bit more techie inside those lines. The grid is low on the street.

What about the future of design for the brand?

For me, at Mercedes, this brand is not a car company. For me, it’s a leading luxury designer… and my mission for the next 10 years, until I retire, is let’s make it the most loved luxury brand. Because if you want to be the leading luxury brand, you have to have love, right? There has to be love. And who’s in the love business? That’s my job.

So we could call you the Chief Love Officer?

That’s what we are doing. [smiles and laughs]

Those drawn to the brand will enjoy the latest refresh. Detractors may find that other vehicles offer better value, driving range or faster charging, but they won’t as easily find the love. Visit smart for pricing in your country, which can vary substantially based on government incentives and taxes.

Images courtesy of Mercedes-Benz / smart