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First Drive: 2018 Smart ForTwo ED Cabrio

A European EV on holiday

SAN DIEGO, California - The most often question I hear when Smart comes up is, "Would it work for the average buyer?" My answer is more often than not, "No." However, for those that live in the right part of New York City, downtown Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or similar dense urban environment, the Smart's all-electric drivetrain and easy-to-park size makes a case that can't be easily refuted. But with sales an equally pint-sized range and cargo area, is the drop-top Smart be the enticement the brand needs to survive in the U.S. market?

Smart faces no such questions in its home market. When the new all-electric drivetrain was launched in continental Europe, it quickly sold out. In fact, demand was so high that Smart delayed the U.S. launch in order to meet production deadlines and deliver cars to paying customers.

When Smart U.S. announced that its lineup would go fully electric, many dealers decided to axe the brand as sales declined from around 7,000 cars sold each year to just 2,900 through 11 months of 2017. Smart's continued future in the U.S., then, rests on coastal city-dwellers that don't have children, pets, or the need to travel far beyond their immediate neighborhood for a good cup of coffee.

Smart's PR team came up with a Scavenger Hunt of sorts for our drive through the winding, hilly, ocean-adjacent streets of sunny San Diego to show the versatility of the Fortwo Cabrio ED. It's likely that it was also an attempt keep our minds busy with clues and the hunt and away from the EV's short 58-mile range and lack of interior space.

The Smart ED's three-phase electric drivetrain resides where the fuel tank used to be and makes 80 hp and 118 lb-ft of torque, but power delivery, however, just isn't as direct or as engaging as other electric vehicles. In fact, the behavior is closer to that of an internal combustion engine, where power gradually builds then peters off at the top. I'd like more electric oomph, especially from something that weighs just 2,383 lbs. Smart claims the ForTwo ED Cabrio will hit 60 mph in just under 12 seconds, but to my calibrated posterior, the real-world sensation feels slower. It's not as unbearably slow as a malaise-era diesel, but making the experience more fun would go a long way in convincing people to buy the little EV.

Charging the car world's equivalent of Mini-Me also presents challenges. According to Smart, using a standard outlet takes 13 hours to reach 80-percent of range and 16.5 hours to get to full, dropping to a more respectable three hours to full with a fast charger. Still a considerable amount of time, especially, given the small battery and short range.

The little city car, however, held its own in normal traffic on San Diego's oft-uneven streets. Though the short wheelbase makes for a slightly bouncy ride at speed, the soft suspension setup does a good job of absorbing impact force and managing jolts. Steering is direct and responsive, while the lower center of gravity created by the replacement of the fuel tank and drivetrain with EV components made the Smart far less wobbly.

Nor is the Smart Fortwo ED Cabrio as "golf cart-esque" as many others have transcribed. The interior is well-appointed for its price and station in life. Touch points are soft and the infotainment system is well thought out. There are a few pieces of hard plastic, but the overall interior experience is one of good, German build quality. My audiophile ears would prefer better acoustics, however, as the bass is slightly heavy and treble not as crisp as other base sound systems. That said, with such a small sound-space, Smart's engineers did an admirable job.

But, like Smart cars in the past, the car's lack of interior space will likely be a sticking point to the already niche buyer looking for a small electric city car. Overall length is just 106.1 inches— great for parking, not great for luggage, animals, or even groceries. I stowed a motorcycle helmet, jacket, and pint-sized day bag in the car's trunk, but if I had brought anything else outside a pack of gum, it'd probably be on the passenger's lap. In terms of practicality, the Fiat 500e and Volkswagen eGolf are much better propositions both on paper and in the real world. Both offer more space, more range, and more usability.

Then there's the matter of the Smart's price. The Smart Fortwo ED coupe starts at $24,550 before any state and federal tax EV incentives, while the Cabrio we drove starts at $28,850. That's not much less than 500e and eGolf, which start at $32,995 and $30,495, respectively, and also meet federal and state conditions for incentives.

Our scavenger hunt tasks completed—my partner and I finished in 2nd place!—we returned to our starting point. After exiting the car, I'm faced with a variation of a question I've been asked so many times before—"In an increasingly diverse small EV segment, will the Smart Fortwo ED work for the average costal buyer?" I modify my original answer to "I'm not sure."

It's a good city car and for a small group of people, it's likely perfect. But when other small EVs exist, why not spend slightly more and get more space, power, range, and utility? The 2018 Smart ForTwo ED Cabrio feels like a European on holiday. It gets along with residents just fine, but it never aimed to assimilate into the American way of life.

2018 Smart ForTwo ED Specifications

PRICE $28,850 (base)
MOTOR Three-pase synchronous electric motor/80 hp, 118 lb-ft
BATTERY Li-ion , 17.6 kWh
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
RANGE 58 miles
L x W x H 106.1 x 65.5 x 61.2 in
WEIGHT 2,383 lb
0-60 MPH 11.7 sec
TOP SPEED 81 mph