Smart ForTwo Electric Drive Review
Score one for the EV enthusiasts
New York, NY—Right now, we’re in the middle of a debate about the real-world viability of the electric car. On one side of the argument, it’s a fairly compelling story, the idea of being able to plug your car into a household electrical outlet and drive around town for a few days—and for a few cents per mile.
On the other hand, there’s the much-debated issue of range anxiety (what to do when the batteries run dry in the middle of nowhere?), plus the related questions of how long said batteries will last and how much they will cost to replace. Over and above all that, there’s an even bigger global issue to consider: How clean is the electricity that’s used to recharge these vehicles?
There’s a new electric vehicle about to appear in many markets around the world and it creates one of the most compelling arguments yet for the advent of electric vehicles. The Smart ForTwo electric drive—which has been the subject of a pilot project in London (since 2007) and Berlin (since late 2009)—makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons, the main one being that its purpose is to be an urban commuter car, nothing more, nothing less.
Since the regular smart fortwo made the journey from Europe, it has met with mixed response. In one market in particular, the United States, sales have been decidedly tepid. Little wonder: Americans love the idea of being able to drop everything and drive across the country if the mood strikes…even if the mood never happens to strike.
While you could certainly drive long distances in the petrol-powered fortwo, it wouldn’t be the most comfortable journey. Interior space is, of course, not exactly plentiful. But more pointedly, the smart is not the swiftest vehicle around and the prospect of mixing it up with all those massive trucks along America’s highways would be just short of terrifying for the average driver.
Thus, the appeal of the smart fortwo electric drive comes into sharp focus: It’s got enough interior space for daily commutes and it’s quick enough to handle the pace of city traffic. In driving the petrol- and electric-powered versions of the smart back-to-back around Brooklyn and Manhattan, the EV edition showed significant advantages over its fossil-fuel burning predecessor.
First, like all electric vehicles, the smart produces maximum torque from a standing start, so it feels quicker than the petrol-powered version off the line. The smart electric is fitted with a 30 kW electric motor that generates 120 Nm of torque. The run from 0 to 60 km/h takes 6.5 seconds, exactly the same amount of time as for the model equipped with the 1.0-litre petrol engine.
The electric version offers a more seamless driving experience, though; its single-speed drive means there’s no annoying hesitation between shifts, as there is with the North American petrol smart and its laborious 5-speed automated manual transmission. Top speed for the electric car is capped at 100 km/h—but when does anyone ever drive that fast in the city?
Answer: Me (almost), during the launch event.
As I climbed into the smart fortwo electric drive for the first time, I had one goal in mind: To see how the thing would respond with someone such as yours truly, the average bloke who likes to get places in a hurry, behind the wheel.
Was I interested in maximizing the range of the vehicle? Not in the least. Did I care about sticking to the predetermined drive routes, the predominantly flat roads of Brooklyn that were designed to present the car with minimal challenges? Not really. But did I want to see how the car would handle the cut-and-thrust nature of one of the world’s biggest cities? Definitely.
So I pulled out of the parking lot near the Fulton Ferry Terminal and blasted down Furman Street, headed south, running parallel to the East River. Along the way, I passed five of my colleagues in smart electrics, all of them seemingly gripped with range anxiety, and powered all the way up to 85 km/h in a 60 zone before having to hit the brakes for a stoplight. Not too shabby.
Throughout the drive, the smart electric proved a great way to get around: it was quick enough to battle with cab drivers at traffic lights and small enough to change lanes aggressively without inciting a riot. What’s more, the smart produces smiles—it’s a fun-looking car that, either through its appearance or its environmental sensitivity, makes people just feel good.
To top it all off, the car’s lithium-ion battery pack is fairly heavy (at some 140 kg), but it’s mounted under the floor between the rear wheels, where the petrol tank normally resides. This added weight is surprisingly beneficial; the EV version actually handles pothole-strewn city streets far better than its predecessor and the car feels more planted. A real eye-opener, this characteristic.
Let’s step back and take a look at the technical features of the car in more detail.
The battery pack is produced by infamous rogue car-builder Tesla. While that company has experienced some difficulty in getting its own models into drivers’ hands, they certainly seem to be making progress with battery technology. (The original smart electric, given to 100 people for the London test, employed a sodium-nickel chloride battery pack.)
The new battery pack has 16.5 kW of electrical energy and can be recharged using a North American standard 220-Volt electrical outlet. The manufacturer recommends recharging overnight, but the batteries will likely be ready to go after just two or three hours. In addition, unlike the wildly extravagant claims other manufacturers make for their EVs, Daimler-Benz is saying the smart electric has a range of 135 km.
(Side note: During our decidedly aggressive test drive around Brooklyn and over the bridge to Manhattan, it seemed as if this range would be very easily attainable.)
The electric motor is mounted in the back, slotting into the vacancy created by the removal of the petrol engine; passenger and cargo space for both models is identical, so there’s no compromise required to go emissions-free in this respect. Drive is courtesy of a single fixed gear ratio; when reversing, the motor’s direction of rotation changes. Again: simple and hassle-free.
Inside the cabin, the fortwo electric drive has also changed very little from its predecessor. The biggest difference, understandably, is the instrument panel that includes a battery charge indicator, as well as an ammeter to show consumption and energy recovered from the braking system.
Behind the scenes, the smart is equipped with sophisticated electronics to manage the battery pack. This system monitors voltage, electricity and temperature to ensure the batteries are never in an overload situation; it also automatically reduces strain by powering down the air conditioning or heating when necessary. Another interesting feature: When the car is being recharged, the air conditioning can run to cool the vehicle down in preparation for those hot summer days.
The fortwo electric is available in either coupe or cabriolet form. Many of the initial markets will receive a reasonably equipped car that includes air conditioning, electric power steering, power windows and side mirrors, smart radio 9, 12-spoke alloy wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter. Comfortable if not luxurious.
For all its great qualities, there’s one thing we must remember about the smart fortwo electric drive: This is just a test. Global production is, for the moment, limited to just 1,500 examples; these cars are headed to Europe, Asia and North America initially, with some 40 countries getting on the list for 2012. All of these cars will be made available only on a lease basis and all of them must be returned to the manufacturer at the end of the term.
Most of the EVs will also be headed to companies rather than individual owners. Pricing is yet to be determined in many markets, but for the purposes of demonstration, Americans will pay $600 per month to lease the vehicle. (This figure takes into account their federal government’s significant electric vehicle subsidy.)
Yet all of these caveats don’t alter the fact that the electric version is the smarter smart—especially for the urban centres of the world where space and fresh air are at a premium.