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