Who would have thought that we would have an electric car with so few electronics inside of it? Compared with its more affordable, better thought-out competitors, the smart fortwo Electric Drive seems like an afterthought. The only indication of range is an analog gauge that measures the battery state of charge as a percentage of full. The Nissan Leaf does it much smarter, with a readout of how many miles the car can cover based on weather, the battery charge, and how much energy is being consumed by accessories. Taking it one step further, the Leaf even has a navigation system capable of determining if the battery has enough juice to get you to your destination.
In an ideal world where everyone is 5’7″, the roads are liquid smooth, and our entire lives take place within a ten-mile radius, the Smart would be an interesting car. But that’s not the world we live in. As a taller person, I can barely tolerate the goofy driving position enforced by the fixed steering wheel and the minimally adjustable seat. The short wheelbase and stiff suspension make rough roads unpleasant. And unless they live within fifteen miles of the office, I imagine buyers will want access to a 240-volt charging line both at home and at work. The city/highway combined range of 63 miles will accommodate longer commutes, but when roadside refueling is impossible, it’s comforting to have a full charge almost every time you get into the car.
As a smaller and lighter vehicle, you’d expect the Smart to consume less electricity per mile than the Leaf, but the opposite is true. The EPA says that the electric ForTwo consumes 39 kWh per 100 miles while the Leaf is rated at 34 kWh per 100 miles.
Smart dealers are leasing the ForTwo Electric Drive for $599 per month, while a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt can be had for $350 per month. Marry all of these compromises together and it’s clear that the Smart is not one of the intelligent electric vehicles we were promised.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
It ain’t cheap, at a monthly lease price of $599, but the electric Smart is far more livable and pleasant to drive than the gasoline-powered version, simply because it uses a single-speed transmission versus the gasoline Smart’s horrible stepped-gear, traditional transmission, which hiccups through the gears so violently that the whole vehicle dips and bobs as you accelerate up to speed.
Anyway, with the electric Smart, you get smooth, linear power delivery up to 50 mph. (The vehicle will go faster than that, and can easily be driven on the freeway, but power comes on quite slowly past 50 mph.) And since no one in their right mind is going to use a Smart for anything other than an urban/suburban runabout anyway, the electric version makes perfect sense: you shouldn’t encounter many scenarios wherein you’d run out of power. Let’s say you work 25 miles from home; presumably you’d plug it in while you’re at the office and then you’d have plenty of juice to get home and run some errands along the way. I think you’d have enough juice for a 50-mile round trip, for that matter, but I didn’t have an opportunity to try that.
One nagging problem that was not evident in the gasoline-powered version we drove recently was the pedal placement. It’s very hard to get a comfortable position for your foot because of the way the accelerator pedal is very flat to the floor.
I plugged it in overnight at 50 percent charge and the next morning it was fully charged. I used the electric Smart all weekend for my normal routine of errands, socializing, and shopping, and it was great.
Obviously, this is a third or fourth car for the typical family — very special-use. But if you live in a crowded urban environment and want nothing more than a city car and can handle the $599, hey, maybe you should be one of the 250 Americans who get to lease one this year.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Despite my love of high-performance cars, I really enjoy commuting in electric vehicles. There’s never any harsh shifts, the instant torque makes low-speed driving a blast, and you never have to contend with an unrefined engine’s NVH characteristics on the highway like you might expect in a gasoline-powered subcompact. But this Smart is the worst EV I’ve driven.
My night with the Smart was off to a bad start when I discovered the car will not go more than 65 mph — traffic on Michigan freeways is almost never going less than 75 mph. Each time I passed an on-ramp, there was a line of cars trying to merge into my lane and typically a line of cars or semi trucks passing me on the left. It was awful not having the ability to increase my speed at all to help merging traffic. Instead, I had to slow down to let people on the freeway and then wait a while to get back up to 65 mph. I made a stop along the way and ended up traveling approximately 58 miles on 80 percent of the vehicle’s charge, so the battery needed to charge up from 20 percent.
As soon as I returned home, I plugged in the Smart’s charger (110v on a dedicated 20 amp circuit) and let it run for 11 hours. When I woke up, the car had charged to only 80 percent and my commute is 38.4 miles. Based on my driving the previous night, that charge should have been more than adequate for getting to the office. However, it was in the low 30s in the morning and still dark outside. I elected to have my dad pick me up for breakfast so the car could charge a bit longer. The hour or so I spent going to breakfast added another 5 percent charge, so I was looking at 85 percent of the battery and it was light enough outside to drive without headlights. But it was still cold and I needed to run the heater.
After about 8 miles I realized that the battery’s charge was dropping far too quickly to get me to work and I had to switch off the heater. At this point I was cursing Smart for not giving an estimated range. Then I noticed that the power gauge in the instrument cluster had dropped by three bars and my top speed was limited to 55 mph for a couple miles. I never figured out why the power went away or why it came back since the heater was off the entire time the gauge was changing, but it was unnerving to have my top speed reduced. As I added miles, the battery charge fell more slowly and I would add heat to the car in quick bursts, but I was still wary of the rate at which the gauge fell.
By the time I pulled in at the office, I had about 9 percent remaining in the battery pack. I couldn’t stop thinking about the extra 5 percent charge the car picked up during my unplanned breakfast. I don’t know if I could have made it to the office without that extra charge since the drive would have required headlights. I was very relieved to be done driving the Smart EV. I fully understand that the car would have been able to charge to 100 percent in my garage if I had a 220-volt charger, but last year I drove a Mitsubishi i-MiEV on a comparable route, even took several joy rides after I went home, and still got a full charge from the same 110-volt outlet. The Mitsubishi was also larger, more comfortable, and felt more substantial going down the road.
Despite my less-than-ideal experience with the Smart EV, I agree with Joe DeMatio that it’s the most logical Smart offered. This is a great idea with subpar execution. Perhaps that’s why there are only 250 of these cars being offered. If Smart can do a better job displaying relevant EV metrics like range, time to charge, and give it a realistic top speed of 80 mph, this concept will make a lot more sense.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
The electric version of the Smart ForTwo actually drives better than the gasoline-powered version that we tested a couple weeks ago. Besides its superior transmission that Joe already mentioned, improved weight distribution also helps. (The batteries are located beneath the driver’s seat, whereas the normal ForTwo has a rear-mounted engine.) The Electric Drive edition also feels less prone to understeer and less quick to activate its stability control system during normal driving.
This is the first electric car I’ve driven extensively. It’s a good thing a home charger was included in the cargo hold of our test car, or I probably wouldn’t have made it back to work this morning, since I had to take a detour on my way home yesterday evening. My commute is 45 miles round trip — well within the published ranges of 93 miles (per the EPA’s LA4 city test), 84 miles (per a Smart brochure), and 63 miles (per the EPA’s combined test) — but I ended up driving 60.2 miles, and I would not have made it without the recharge. Granted I was driving nearly flat-out for much of the time (a measly 65 mph is the indicated top speed) and I used the radio, headlights, and windshield wipers. How dare I choose to drive in the rain, listen to a baseball game, and run a short errand? That’s the big problem with EVs at this point: limited freedom to deviate from your typical commute. Admittedly, though, most EV buyers surely have commutes shorter than my 45-mile round trip.
Even though I plugged in the car in for more than nine hours, it boosted the charge state only from 30 percent to 80 percent. (Perhaps it requires a 240V plug to get the extra 20 percent?)
Never before have I been passed so quickly by a Toyota Prius, but that’s what happened when I had the accelerator pinned on I-94 last night. I suppose a 65-mph top speed isn’t terrible if you’re OK with getting passed and taking your time, but the big limitation, as Phil already described, is that when traffic is merging you don’t have the ability to accelerate smoothly into the left lane. Same with back roads — if you get stuck behind someone who wants to do 45 mph in a 55-mph zone, you have to plan your passes VERY carefully. To its credit, the Smart is peppy off the line and around town, but after about 30 mph or so you really feel this car’s sluggishness. Speaking of highway driving, this 1950-pounder is no fun at all to drive at higher speeds in windy conditions.
I was impressed that the car produced heat so quickly on my drive home last night, but this morning I was less impressed, even though ambient temperatures were only slightly colder (35 degrees versus 40).
Our test car, by the way, looked supercool with its metallic green wheels and green Tridion Safety Cell paired with white body panels. The good looks of this test car certainly do not make up for the Smart Electric Drive’s extra cost and diminished range compared with the Nissan Leaf, which also happens to have a back seat. Still, I agree with my colleagues who’ve noted that the electric edition makes the most sense of any Smart for sale today.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
2011 smart fortwo Electric Drive
Monthly lease price: $599 (only offered as a lease)
Lease term: 48 months
Zytek permanent-magnet motor
16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery
Front disc brakes/rear drum brakes; ABS
Electronic stability program
Electronic brake-force distribution
15-inch aluminum-alloy wheels
Air conditioning with automatic temperature control
AM/FM radio with USB/Aux inputs
Options on this vehicle:
Key options not on vehicle:
Ploycarbonate panoramic roof
Smart sound system
Daytime running lamps
39 kW per 100 miles
Zytek permanent-magnet motor
Horsepower: 40 hp
Torque: 89 lb-ft
Curb weight: 1958 lb
Wheels/tires: 15-inch aluminum-alloy wheels
155/60R15 front; 175/55R15 rear all-season tires