With a jolt of electricity, the Smart Fortwo can become relevant—and refreshingly different.
Further to the point, our surprising conclusion after a couple of hours behind the wheel of the new Smart Electric Drive is that, the Fortwo feels like a more appealing, fully realized package as an electric vehicle—more so than in its gasoline form.
Putting electric drive in the little two-seat Fortwo seems like a no-brainer as it's well suited for dense urban areas or low-speed commutes. After all, the gasoline Fortwo never has been a lot of fun outside of those low-speed commute conditions. Take it out on the highway and it turns into a noisy, pitchy driving experience and the Fortwo's lane-squeezing maneuverability succumbs to vulnerability in the face of semis and Suburbans.
Electric Drive feels way more refined
Then of course there's the gasoline Fortwo's powertrain; with the Mitsubishi three-banger thrumming just behind and below you and an automated manual transmission that works fine but is a little unpredictable, it's hardly a refined or responsive experience. While the existing ForTwo's under-the-cargo-floor engine emits lots of vibration, its automated manual gearbox is unpredictable unless you call the shifts for yourself (and have the optional paddle shifters), and the ride is a bit harsh, climb into the Electric Drive and it's like night and day. Turn the ignition key on and shift to drive, and there's the eerie silence that we've grown accustomed to with electric cars. Step on the gas, and it surges forward, with only a gentle whine.
From a standing start, the ED feels very sprightly. With up to 89 pound-feet delivered pretty right off the bat, the Smart electric drive is very quick from stoplights, with surrounding drivers (including the ever-pesky cargo-van drivers in urban Brooklyn streets) obviously surprised with the ED's quickness. Floor the throttle above 40 km/h (25 mpg or so) and the response is still good; but by 60 km/h a full throttle brings just a tepid response. Things really peter out above that, and the ED's top speed is about 62 mph.
'Kickdown Mode' gives extra juice
The motor produces up to 20 kW in normal driving, but there's a 30-kW "kickdown mode" wherein the smart gets a very noticeable spurt of oomph.
The battery is just 16.5 kWh and is good for an official range of 83 miles. After one test car has been driven aggressively for about 12 miles, we noticed range had dropped to about 80 percent. A 3.3-kW charger and J1772 charge connector are included with the package and with a dryer-type 220-volt outlet it can be charged from 20 to 80 percent in three to four hours, or from completely dead to 100 percent in about eight hours.
With the help of an iPhone app specially designed by Mercedes-Benz and Daimler, owners will be able to keep tabs on the current state of charge of their vehicles, how much time is remaining until the battery is fully charged, or the location of the nearest charging station.
Again, the surprising and delightful part about the ED is how well the whole package is integrated. Electric power steering is optional on gasoline cars, but it comes standard on the electric model; braking actually feels better on the ED than in the gasoline version. We found the brakes in the Fortwo hard to modulate in the base Fortwo, but somehow the tuning for regenerative braking smoothed it all out and made it more predictable in normal driving. The regen has several modes; a light regeneration is engaged when you take your foot off the gas, then two stronger regen modes are smoothly engaged with the brake pedal.
Package is the same--but it rides and drives better
The package is almost exactly the same. Compared to the gasoline version, the electric smart has 308 pounds of extra weight. Somehow, on the bumpy streets around Park Slope, Brooklyn, where we tested these Smarts, we noted that it made the Electric Drive ride more smoothly than the base Fortwo, with less of a tendency to tramline or get pulled aside by potholes. Sometimes, we suppose, a little extra weight is a good thing? And because the ED has rear-wheel drive, you don't get the torque steer at low speeds that front-wheel-drive electric vehicles might be prone to.
About the only thing that we didn't like so much—at least given the constraints of this tight little package—was the noticeably loud whine when maintaining speed. There's a good deal more than we've experienced in the Mini E, which is probably the closest car to which we can compare the ED.
Want one this year? Good luck.
Plans for the Electric Drive are quite limited initially. Beginning this October, Smart will distribute 250 (of 1,500, globally) Electric Drives to U.S. customers, but most of those cars will go to corporate, public, and educational fleets. Mass production will ramp up beginning in 2012.
Overall, the Electric Drive is a strong piece of work for quieter, more economical, healthier, and more efficient urban and suburban mobility. It's hampered a bit by a low top speed, but the 80-mile range should be more than enough for most needs.
It's a Smart that's, um, a lot smarter.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection