Having just stepped out of the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, my enthusiasm for alternative-fuel cars was riding a particularly high wave. The hydrogen-powered Benz is extremely polished and the car was perfectly competent and calm in the city traffic of Southern France. Were it not for the abysmal availability of hydrogen, this car could be sold in dealerships today.
It was with that mindset that I climbed into the electric smart fortwo, a preview of the production car coming in 2012.
I got out of the electric Smart a short time later, more uncertain about electrics than ever.
Compared to other electric cars on their way to market, the ForTwo seems sorely limited and a backward step toward the golf-cart-like prototypes and neighborhood vehicles that we’ve come from. It’s perhaps the slowest electric vehicle that can still be called a car, has a relatively short range, and has a top speed limited to 62 mph.
Our brief drive of the Smart was hardly enough time to provide a full review, but I certainly gleaned some strong impressions in a few key areas. As soon as you set out, it’s painfully clear that this is a slow car, as it produces a maximum of just 40 hp. Making city driving even more leisurely, the power output is normally just 27 hp, with the additional 13 hp delivered when you push the pedal into the kickdown switch and only providing the boost for two minutes.
The brake pedal is even more aggravating. The mixed hydraulic and regenerative braking system creates an uncertain feel that is difficult to modulate, a problem that many hybrids have already solved. Further, the mechanical integration of the pedal seems crude, taking a surprising amount of force to push down until it suddenly gives, causing initial stopping to be jerky.
The 16.5-kWh battery should provide enough electricity to travel roughly 84 miles, recharging in 3.5 to 8 hours depending on whether you use a 110- or 220-volt line. Smart says their car features intelligent charging management that simplifies the process of charging an electric car. With a communication protocol, the Smart can identify itself to the power company when plugged in, allowing an owner to receive a single utility bill even when charging the car at stations throughout a city. A smartphone interface allows customers to check the battery level of their car. The car also be programmed to delay charging until electricity rates have dropped to lower, offpeak prices.
Since delivering 100 test cars as the first-generation electric ForTwo in 2007, Smart has developed their powertrain quite a bit. The battery has changed from a nickel-chloride pack to the modern lithium-ion unit. Power has increased from 27 to 40 hp. Range has grown from 62 to 84 miles. That leads us to believe that there may be hope for more improvements before the company begins mass production for 2012. In the meantime, Smart is building 1000 examples of the second-generation electric that will be delivered to Europeans, Americans, and Canadians on a lease basis for testing purposes. The cars should arrive by the U.S. in the second half of 2010.