BROOKLYN, New York - Ever since they went on sale as 2008 models, the smart cars marketed by Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) have captured considerable attention on the streets. They've also drawn a fair number of sales, from idiosyncratic shoppers who can manage with only two seats - or, more likely, have another car at home with a back seat.
When it first appeared, the smart fortwo qualified as the first microcar in the U.S. market in a good many years. Available as early as 1999 in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the smart car came in coupe or convertible form, with a 1.3-liter gasoline engine and an automated-manual gearbox.
Even at the time of the smart's initial media introduction in California, plans for a battery-powered edition were under development. In fact, an electric smart was exhibited as part of that program. Now, as a 2011 model, the smart fortwo electric is almost ready for the marketplace. Sales are scheduled to begin in October 2010.
According to Marc Langenbrinck, head of brand management, "smart has always stood for sustainability." In fact, the "smart electric drive is probably the true nature of the smart fortwo."
Derek Kaufman, vice-president for product development, sees "the microcar as an urban solution," and as a "statement of material conservation on wheels." It's also an example of the principles that "small can be safe [and] physics works." Doubters are invited to check Safeandsmart.com, for reports on accidents with smart cars.
A 16.5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery is installed, and the 30-kilowatt electric motor yields 41 horsepower. At constant speed, the motor operates at 20 kW, rising to 30 kW in kickdown mode.
In electric form, the smart fortwo weighs 308 pounds more than a gasoline-engine model. The company claims an 83-mile range, equivalent to 4-5 hours of driving at city speeds. Typical commuters should only have to charge the car once or twice a week. That can be done with either 110 or 220 volts. Full charging of a totally discharged battery takes about 8 hours, but it can go from 20 to 80 percent in 3.5 hours. "Charge at night, drive in the morning" is the basic theme.
Partly because there are no gear changes, the smart EV exhibits a pleasantly smooth powertrain - far removed from the jerkiness of the automated-manual transmission used in the gasoline-engine version of the fortwo. That makes the electric fortwo more fun to drive than its gas-engine sibling. This smart actually starts off with some assertiveness, though overall acceleration is milder. Quite a loud whistle appears when accelerating even a little, but it quiets down when cruising.
Clearly firm, the suspension deals acceptably with moderate bumps, but big ones produce quite a ruckus. Any smart car maneuvers smartly, making it just the thing for crowded city streets. Quick steering helps with agility, too. Brakes don't feel quite as confident as some, and the driver must get used to a different pedal feel.
Charge/Discharge and State of Charge gauges stick out atop the dash: odd, but easy to read and not really in the way. Abundant glass provides good views all around, though visibility directly aft in the mirror is somewhat constricted.
Tested immediately after the EV, a gas-engine fortwo suffered less transmission lurching than the one we drove before the car went on sale in 2008, but it's definitely still an issue. Judicious application of gas can keep it calm much of the time; but a really nasty jolt may still appear at times, and you're never unaware that its gear-changing deftness is suspect. Nastily loud noises emanate from the gasoline engine, too, in the form of worrisome clatter. Steering also takes a fair amount of effort.
Permits to put a 220-volt line in a garage have become a "critical point" in some areas, according to Kaufman. For "garage orphans" (with no private garage), charging ports will be installed in such places as parking structures, malls, and movie theater parking lots.
No one will be buying a smart EV. Rather, 250 battery-powered fortwos will be leased for four years, at $599 per month. All 250 cars will go back to Daimler at the end of the lease term. Then, Phase 3 will start, with 2013 models. Because Daimler is the car's owner, the federal tax credit will be rolled into the lease calculation.
In the smart car's first year, many people bought them as a second, third, or fourth car. In 2009, as the economy sank, "people were not spending money," said smart president Jill Lajdziak (formerly the head of the now-defunct Saturn company). There are a "lot of misperceptions about the car [and] it's not a mainstream product," Lajdziak added, so we "need very targeted and laserlike marketing efforts." Three teams have been touring the U.S. to market the car to the public.
Battery-powered smart cars wll go to five key launch locations: Portland, OR; San Jose, CA; Orlando, FL; Indianapolis, IN; and the I-95 Corridor in Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. More than 14,000 smart cars were sold during 2009. Currently, smart has 77 dealerships in the U.S.
Electrics should be "a geopolitical game changer," Kaufman said, as well as a "catalyst for discussion" of a comprehensive energy policy. "Electricity is diverse and domestic," he added. "There is spare capacity" and a network infrastructure is in place.
The smart company will not have enough cars until 2012, when Phase 3 begins. Meanwhile, in addition to leasing the 250 cars, smart will be participating in car-sharing operations. A pilot program with Car To Go will begin in Austin, Texas, as well as in Germany. Car sharing is "of major importance," Langenbrinck said, and they want it to be "easy like mobile phoning." Customers need only register once. As you pass by the car to be borrowed, it automatically identifies you. Users may be billed by the minute, hour, or day, leaving the car anywhere in the city.
Note: The smart fortwo electric drive model tested was a European model.
Attention Editors: This complete 2011 smart fortwo electric drive review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.