First Drive: 2011 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive makes a lot of sense for a few people
by Zach Bowman on Jun 24th 2010 (edited for less than 10,000 characters)
....Conveniently, with those astronomical figures at the pump came the plucky little Smart ForTwo, a car that symbolized what could be accomplished if a driver were willing to sacrifice everything for a low-cost, high-efficiency vehicle. With fuel prices hovering above $4.00 per gallon, sales exploded for a short time, and news outlets around the country heralded Smart as the face of the future for U.S. transportation. But it wasn't long before gas prices crawled back down, and Smart sales went catatonic just as quickly as they took off.
Now the company has jumped into the race to be one of the first to bring a completely viable electric vehicle to market with the 2011 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive. It's a move that just might alter the transportation landscape for good – not just in the U.S,, but around the globe.
Outside, the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive (or ED, if you favor unfortunate acronyms) is differentiated from its internal combustion cousins by little more than a few splashes of green paint and a load of decals and emblems. The first handful of the vehicles will only be available in the color combination you see above in order to help Smart build awareness of its EV program, and honestly, it's not a bad combo. We dig the color-matched three-lug wheels, and the ED logo is clever enough to keep from being pompous. Otherwise, you'll still get plenty of the brand's love it or loathe it styling from every corner. We know it doesn't make much sense, but the looks seem more livable given the electric drivetrain rather than the modestly-efficient gasoline engine. Anyone who's fielded a boatload of questions about the ForTwo inevitably gets asked if it's electric, and now they can respond in the affirmative.
Likewise, little has changed inside the car's cabin with the exception of a few new gauges. Two pods now keep tabs on the charge of the ED's battery pack and how much the battery is either discharging or recharging in kilowatts. The ForTwo Electric Drive carries an onboard recharging system capable of restoring up to 10 kilowatts at a time as you use the car's regenerative brakes. Otherwise, the interior is the same wild metallic green paint that makes its way indoors for the instrument cluster, and a new iPod integration kit is also available.
Don't think the lack of changes inside is exactly a bad thing, though. We've always been impressed with the amount of room Smart has managed to cram inside of the bubbly ForTwo, and there's plenty of space for above average-sized folks. Our only gripe is that the high seating position, short nose and near vertical windshield combine to make eying stoplights difficult if you're first in line. Otherwise, the controls are easy to navigate and a cinch to reach.
But the big news is, of course, what puts power to the wheels. Smart has sacrificed the standard 1.0-liter three-cylinder gas engine and automated manual transmission in favor of all-electric goodies, including a 20-kilowatt electric motor that's capable of "boosting" up to 30 kilowatts and is attached to a fixed gear. That works out to around 40 horsepower in boost mode, or 57 percent of what the standard gasoline powerplant produces, though the motor does muster up a hefty 88 pound-feet of torque to help scoot the car along. That figure is 20 lb-ft more than what the standard ForTwo delivers.
That fixed gear means top speed is governed to just 62 mph, and Smart says that the run to 37 mph takes around 6.5 seconds. Initially, Smart will be offering what it calls Level II technology in the ForTwo Electric Drive, and that means that power is stored on board via a 16.5 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack developed by none other than the good folk at Tesla Motors. If you recall, Smart's parents at Daimler snapped up a 10-percent stake in Tesla last year with the aim of partnering on an EV. The result is the ForTwo Electric Drive.
That doesn't mean Smart will be relying on hand-me down tech from Tesla forever, though. Daimler is currently working on a proprietary battery pack and electric motor for both the ForTwo Electric Drive and an upcoming Mercedes-Benz A-Class EV that's due to be sold in Europe in a few years. That tech falls under the banner of Level III, and will be what buyers can expect to pick up when it officially goes on sale in 2012 as a 2013 model.
For now, though, you get Tesla bits in your Smart EV. And that's obviously not a bad thing. The company says that the car can be charged through any 220 volt outlet – the same current your dryer uses – in around 3.5 hours so long as the battery is between a 20-to-80 percent state of charge. If absolutely drained, you're looking at around eight hours to top off the cells. If you don't feel like running a 220 volt line to your garage (or unplugging your air compressor), Smart says that owners will technically be able to charge their ForTwo Electric drive via a standard 110 volt plug, though charge times will increase to around 14 hours. Either way, range sits at around 83 miles depending on driving conditions, or around four to five hours of cruise time at typical highway speeds.
As with most electric vehicles, the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive is a porker compared to its siblings. Even after stripping out the tiny three-pot engine and transmission and replacing them with a battery pack and a motor, the car weighs 300 pounds more than the standard internal-combustion variants. The curb weight sits at a still minimalist 2,100 pounds, and while you'd expect the extra heft to have a negative impact on the car's drivability, the truth is, it doesn't.
Let's be clear about this: We aren't fans of adding weight to any vehicle for any purpose. It simply goes against every grain of our being, but with additional weight on the springs, the ForTwo feels considerably less bouncy than it's less tech-laden siblings. Even over the broken tarmac of Brooklyn, the little EV was confidently planted on the hard stuff. Steering is still light, but we wouldn't call it disconnected by any means, and the regenerative brakes are capable without being grabby.
But what about the power, you ask? If you've been paying attention to the numbers above, you've probably figured out that this thing isn't going to be the perfect replacement for the average Toyota Camry, or even the Toyota Prius for that matter. That's just fine, though, because Smart isn't interested in marketing the ForTwo Electric Drive as such. Instead, it sees the little EV as a second or third car for a family saddled with commuting into the inner city for work, and given that duty, it performs pretty well.
We aren't the biggest fans of the standard ForTwo. The three-cylinder engine sounds and feels like it should be in the nose of a lawn tractor instead of a car, and the automated-manual transmission is used as part of extreme interrogation tactics at Guantanamo Bay. But with those elements removed from the equation, the micro-car becomes downright enjoyable to drive. Believe it. The car is suddenly very quiet and the herky-jerky motion of the gearbox is replaced with smooth, seamless power.
With all of that torque on hand right from the get go, the ForTwo Electric Drive has no problem keeping up with its neighbors in stop and go traffic. Given the confines of our drive route, it was difficult to build much speed over 45 mph, but we never felt like we were going to get into trouble due to a lack of power or speed. We wouldn't be brave enough to try our luck on your average interstate, but for any other type of driving, the ounce-sized EV would do just fine.
That is, if it didn't cost an arm and a leg. Starting this summer, Smart will lease 250 ForTwo Electric Drive models here in the United States as part of a 1,500-unit world-wide launch. Around 80 percent of those will go to corporations and municipalities, leaving the rest to be divvied out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Both corporate and private customers can look forward to paying $599 a month for a 48-month lease. Throw in a $2,500 down payment, and you're looking at a total of $31,000 just for the privilege of being an early adopter. And mileage is capped at 10,000 miles per year.
If you have a single working brain cell in your skull, you can probably come up with dozens of better options, but that price isn't going to be around forever. Smart plans to outright sell the ForTwo Electric Drive to customers starting mid 2012 as a 2013 model, and the company says the MSRP will be considerably lower than the lease price. We certainly hope so.
All of us have grown up in an internal combustion world, and as such, we love nearly everything about ICEs – from idle to redline, turbo to exhaust note – it's what we know. When we plopped ourselves behind the steering wheel of the ForTwo Electric Drive, we expected a handshake from the executioner of everything we enjoy about driving, but what we got instead was an introduction to a car that felt just like our daily drivers in stop and go traffic. The sound of the engine was replaced with a similarly enthralling whine as the electric motor whisked us along and the cabin was considerably more quiet, but otherwise, it felt like the perfect evolution of the car.
We still aren't completely smitten with the idea of trading oil and burning hydrocarbons for digging for lithium and burning coal for our transportation needs, but the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive certainly drives like the next logical step in the evolution of the automobile, and it may very well be part of what's next for the car universe.