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2010 Smart Fortwo: Lovely in electric

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Brooklyn, New York – After the Nissan Leaf and the Mistubishi I-Miev, now it’s the Smart’s turn to go electric. And we got to try this vehicle in the streets of Brooklyn. The Electric Drive will be available in limited quantities this fall and, if all goes well, it should be available to your average Joe by 2012. But the question is, will Mr. Average want this car?

The answer is “yes,” if Joe is an urban guy, but “no” if he expects the electric Smart to be as versatile as a traditional car. With a possible 135 km for a single recharge (more if you break often, less if you use the air con or heat), the electric Smart is good for limited everyday driving. And once the battery is out of juice, it takes three and a half hours to get its kick back – and eight hours to fully recharge. That’s a heckuva lot longer than the time it takes to fill up on gas… Obviously, the “green” Smart is at its best in the city because of its petite size, which allows it to snake in and out of traffic with ease, and also because of its electric engine. Installed in the space that normally houses the three-cylinder gas engine, this 30 kW motor delivers a mere 41 horses. Not much, says you? You can say that again. What’s more, the electric Smart’s maximum speed is just 100 km/hr. This will obviously be a strategic setback when the time comes to take on Canadian highways.

The “immediate” effect
With the direct transmission of the power (that is, without any speeds to jerk your starts) and with the 88 lb.-ft. of torque available right from the first spin of the wheel, the Electric Drive can do 0-60 km/hr in 6.5 seconds. And under your right foot, the vehicle proves to have an easily adaptable attitude, while being totally linear. Nothing like the rocking-chair effect of the Smart equipped with the sequential transmission. And none of the groaning and singing of the combustion engine, either. That said, the Electric Drive is not silent; a little whistle punctuates its adrenaline-filled accelerations. You’d almost think you were in a mini-space shuttle. It’s kind of funny at first, but I wonder if you’d get fed up with it once the novelty wore off? One thing is for sure: the advantage of this futuristic sound is that it warns nearby pedestrians that a non-traditionally powered vehicle is approaching. Remember that in an effort to prevent accidents, advocacy groups for the seeing-impaired are pressuring automobile manufacturers to ensure that hybrids (and electric products) make noise just as conventional cars do.

It’s a little shakier…
But let’s get back to our urban flock. The steering of the “Green Smart” can go from hydraulic mode to electric without ever losing contact with the road. And that’s a good thing. However, the suspension will have you bouncing around quite a bit more than in the traditional Smart. It’s definitely a shakier ride than the diesel and gas Smarts that we tested more extensively (6,000 km down the West Coast in 2005 and 2,500 km to the Arctic Circle last year). The problem is no doubt the extra weight of the batteries (the electric Smart is 140 kg heavier) which have been placed between the axles, right under the two passengers. The good thing about having the batteries there, however, is that they don’t infringe on the small cargo space behind the seats. Phew!

Oh, and a “brake” for some criticism: the pedal is hard and not very reactive. The most modern hybrids have succeeded in balancing the recuperation from the braking with a sense of control under your left foot. The electric Smart Fortwo is going to have to offer a little more amplitude in that respect.

Zero gas, zero pollution
Driving the electric Smart (coupe or cabriolet) through the streets of Brooklyn, you might find yourself wondering whether there are any real differences between this version and the gas version. According to the people at Smart, if we had kept the average speed to 25 or 30 km/hr, the batteries would have lasted a good five hours. And the truth is that the everything about the driving experience is so logical and natural that you tend to forget it’s an electric vehicle. There are some nice touches too, like the green alloy wheels and the natural colours surrounding the rear-view mirrors and the cockpit. But, there definitely are differences between the versions. The two “frog’s eyes” dials that stick out of the dashboard don’t indicate the revs and the time; they show you how much charge is left in the batteries and the energy monitoring. Most importantly: no polluting emissions from the Electric Drive. No need to fill up on gas either. Just plug it into a residential outlet (using the extension cord hidden in the hatch). No need for oil changes, no maintenance – just brakes that need changing and, eventually, batteries to replace.

$21,000 in batteries
Speaking of batteries, the ones aboard the electric Smart are made by Californian manufacturer Tesla, and are lithium ion. Read between the lines: they are better, but also more expensive. “We’re talking €1,000 per kilowatt,” says Derek Kaufman, Vice President of Smart USA. At 16.5 kW for the electric Smart, that’s about CAD $21,000 in each car…

This is one of the reasons the electric Smart is not yet in full production. The launch is nonetheless planned for 2011, with delivery to 40 international markets (including Canada) the following year. Daimler dreams of using its own batteries developed in partnership with Evonik.

45 electric Smarts in Canada
In the meantime, we’ve got the pilot project. Several hundred units are already being tested in European cities and, starting next year, 250 of them will make their way to American urban centres, and another 45 to Canada. The locations in our country have not been determined yet – nor have the prices. But for our southern neighbours, we know that Orlando (Florida), Portland (Oregon), San Jose (California) and Indianapolis (Indiana) will get to experiment with the “Green Smart.” The selected American renters (80% of whom are companies) will each have to pay an initial $2500 plus $599 per month for four years. These amounts were established by taking into consideration the USD$7,500 that the American government will shell out to promote electric vehicles. Ontario has just announced an $8,500 credit, and Quebeckers will be eligible for a refundable tax credit of $8,000 in 2011.

Evaluation

Test model 2010 smart Fortwo
Trim level Électrique
Base price N/A
Price as tested N/A
Warranty (basic) N/A
Warranty (powertrain) N/A
Options N/A
Competitive models Nissan Leaf Mitsubishi I-Miev
Strong points
  • No polluting emissions
  • No more filling the gas tank
  • Not powerful, but direct
  • Petite dimensions make it easy to manoeuvre
Weak points
  • Expensive batteries
  • The suspension is "shaker" than the traditional Smart
  • Can’t do more than 100km/h
  • Should be interesting on the highway...

Editor's rating

Fuel Consumption 5.0/5
Value for Price 3.5/5
Styling 4.0/5
Comfort 3.5/5
Performance 2.5/5
Overall 4.5/5
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