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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
IS there a need for a new breed of tiny gas-free commuter cars that match the old stereotypes of electric vehicles — that they are puny, plasticky and incapable of going very far?

In recent weeks I’ve driven three such vehicles, all smaller and less substantial than the well-publicized Nissan Leaf, an electric compact, and Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid with a gasoline engine to back up its batteries.

The three new entries — the Think City, the Smart Fortwo ED and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (to be renamed the “i”) — do not pretend to be all things for all drivers. But neither are they glorified golf carts or low-speed neighborhood vehicles like the ones seen in retirement communities.

Rather, they represent the emergence of a new segment: the electric commuter car. More are coming — from obscure start-ups like Wheego to industry stalwarts including Toyota.

Yet these electric commuters could also end up as a niche within a niche — overshadowed by more versatile and polished electric vehicles — before consumers have given them half a chance.

So the immediate question is this: Will enough Americans embrace cars sized and powered for a basic function — navigating congested urban traffic with one or two people on board — without insisting on capabilities they will seldom if ever use, like cross-country range and trailer-towing capacity?

The cars’ shapes are awkward and their names are somewhat silly: City? ED? Lowercase i? But all three are quite real, are all available to buy or lease (or soon will be) and all have some degree of highway functionality and big-boy features.

While each has some desirable aspects, all are relatively expensive and none come remotely close to earning the title of “first great electric commuter car.”

Here are some impressions:

Think City

I had a blast driving the Think City, the most engaging and spirited car of the trio. Part of the fun is that the City, rather than try to disguise its plasticness, fully embraces and celebrates its polymer grandeur.

The City is two feet longer than the minuscule Smart, and its body panels are made of recyclable plastic that resists scratches and dings. Its 37-kilowatt motor (equivalent to 50 horsepower) and 23-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack provide a surprisingly zippy drive, at least in the mostly stop-and-go traffic of the San Francisco Bay Area. I started to imagine the City as the runt nephew of the electric Tesla Roadster, especially when the canvas top was retracted.

The virtues of an electric car — swift, smooth and mostly silent operation — felt amplified relative to the expectation that the pint-size City would be underpowered. Heads turned on city streets and shook in surprise as it quickly bolted to 40 m.p.h. when the light turned green or zoomed to 70 m.p.h., its top speed, on the highway.

The Think City — a car born in Norway, previously assembled in Finland and now in production in Indiana — follows the same Scandinavia-to-America trajectory as Ikea furniture. Could anyone have predicted that unassembled goods designed for space-constrained urbanites would become a mainstream American home-furnishing outlet?

Yet Ikea thrives because it answers a need for cool-on-the-cheap. And if the City works in Oslo, where gas costs about $9 a gallon, then why not in New York or San Francisco, where the price at the pumps flirted with $5 a gallon this year and parking is scarce?

Unlike Ikea’s bookshelves, the Think City doesn’t require assembly, but evidence of its hand-wrought quality is abundant. Welding marks are visible on hinges and seams. Rain had apparently seeped through the hatch of the test car; the hinge bolts had rusted. The bargain-bin radio seemed wedged into the dashboard, and the drop-down cup holders were asking to be broken off.

None of that mattered to me, because I was having so much fun darting between lanes, zipping across the Golden Gate or cruising the hipper quarters of Berkeley. The City’s entire back hatch is glass, affording excellent visibility.

The hand-assembled feel was only the first item on my long list of gripes. The quiet of the electric motor in city driving was interrupted by buzzes, hums and burps from the mechanical systems. On the highway, the motor’s whine varied from something like a small jet engine to a dentist’s drill.

The dashboard conveniently displayed the battery state-of-charge as a percentage number — the most useful metric — but the other power meters were superfluous at best.

My raves about the performance of the City, or its top speed, are limited to its D driving mode. The car also has an E (economy) mode, which robbed the throttle of its fun. On the highway, E reduced the top speed to about 58 m.p.h. That proved inadequate, so I kept moving back to D, which allowed a steady cruise of 65-70 m.p.h.

The E mode is there to extend the driving range, but that’s one area for which I have no complaint. It’s worth repeating: designed for urban use, the Think City served that purpose well. Even though D reduced the comfortable real-world range from the advertised 100 miles to about 75, the best I managed between charges was 69 miles.

The weather throughout my testing was generally mild, without the temperature extremes that tax batteries.

On most days, like many urban dwellers, I drive less than 20 or 30 miles, and on some days I travel only three or four miles. An electric car is perfect for this life style, and even with a standard 110-volt outlet I was able to top off the batteries between local trips.

I found the Think City comfortable, despite its small size, with enough room for my 6-foot-4 frame. But any fantasies about buying a Think City quickly passed, for at least two reasons.

The car handled commuting to work, taking children to school and running local errands, but several times in my week with the car I needed to schlep both my son and daughter at the same time — not possible with a two-seater.

The bigger obstacle is cost — that is, if you can pin the company down on the price. In Indiana, the City has been on sale for a few months for about $34,000 before federal and local incentives for zero-emission vehicles, which could knock the price down by $10,000 or more. But other people at the company told me the City would eventually sell for more than $40,000.

I can’t imagine anybody spending even the lesser of those figures for the City, no matter how well it fits into their lives. For comparison, the much more capable Leaf — a fully featured $32,000 electric car with four doors and seating for five — will be available nationwide by early next year.

Smart Fortwo ED

While the Think makes a gallant effort to provide a smooth carbon-free commute, the Smart ED doesn’t come close. Like the gas-powered Smart Fortwo, the electric version is from Daimler, the German engineering powerhouse that makes Mercedes-Benz vehicles and has decades of experience with electric drivetrains. So you can’t blame the ED’s poor showing on a lack of resources or expertise.

The ED stands for electric drive, not the male sexual malady, yet its performance can only be described as ineffectual. The 30-kilowatt electric motor (equivalent to 40 horsepower) that powers its rear wheels is not a lot smaller than the Think City’s 37-kilowatt motor, but it feels as if it were.

It’s as if Smart provided the diminished economy mode but forgot to offer settings for routine or performance driving. The maximum speed is 60 m.p.h. and nothing more, despite the fact that the Smart ED’s battery pack and drivetrain derive from Daimler’s partnership with Tesla Motors, the maker of screaming-fast electric sports cars.

Fully charged, the 16-kilowatt-hour pack in the Smart ED realistically provides energy for only about 60 miles, 10 or so fewer than the Think City. The Smart also has noticeably less pep on city streets. In fact, the Smart’s drivetrain sometimes seemed to struggle to make any forward momentum at all.

Like the Tesla Roadster and Mini E, the Smart offers no simulated creeping — the 1 m.p.h. forward movement that gas cars provide at idle. When I backed out of the driveway and slipped the shifter into Drive, the car continued to roll backward until I fully applied the brake, at which point the motor could finally propel the car forward.

Worse, the pedals were uncomfortably close to each other, and a post under the brake pedal partly blocked accelerator access for my size 12 shoe.

These problems are bad enough for city driving, but a 70-mile round trip from Berkeley to Palo Alto was absolutely harrowing. Range wasn’t an issue — there was a 240-volt charger at my destination — but the experience on the road was horrendous. With my foot to the floor, the Smart managed only 55 m.p.h. while fighting winds whipping across the Dunbarton Bridge.

Keeping the microcar out of the way of 18-wheelers on Interstate 880 through Oakland made the Slower Traffic Keep Right sign unnecessary; I clung to the right lane for survival as small gasoline cars passed with no effort.

Yes, these city E.V.’s are intended for urban areas, but even city drivers sometimes need to drive on highways.

I was relieved to get off the freeway and back onto Berkeley’s relatively tame streets and the environment for which the Smart ED was intended. In stop-and-go traffic I could appreciate the car’s aesthetics.

Compared with the Lego-toy feel of the Think City, the Smart is well-hewn. The steering wheel was wrapped in leather. The seats provided real lumbar support. The stylish gauges in pods protruding from the dash — the one on the left indicating the state of battery charge — were useful and even elegant.

Daimler did a great job of reducing interior noise, and the cabin was artfully designed and executed. The two-seat configuration, was also generously sized for two people, though the Smart had much less cargo space. For all its shortcomings, the Smart proves an electric commuter can be nicely appointed.

Like the Think, the Smart is not priced to move. The four-year $599-a-month lease (with $2,500 down), combined with a lack of power, makes the ED a poor choice.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

After my less than satisfying experiences driving the first two small E.V.’s, I might have abandoned any notion that cities of the future would buzz with right-size cars powered by electricity.

But two events occurred after I started my experiment: the one-year anniversary of the Gulf oil spill and the return of $4 gas nationwide. In that context, the Mitsubishi arrived. My test car was labeled an i-MiEV, but a revised version will be sold as the Mitsubishi i.

In many respects, the i-MiEV offered more of the same. The interior screams “cheap.” The bubblelike design is goofy. The doors close with a meek ping. The upright seating forces tall drivers to get creative with their knees.

But the car has four doors and a legitimate back seat for two passengers. My Euro-spec test model was about a foot longer than the Think City and two feet longer than the Smart ED, and by the time the American version arrives late this year, it will have grown another 11 inches longer and 5 inches wider.

The motor of the United States version will also grow to 49 kilowatts, from 47, and the tuning will be “Americanized.” I’m hoping Mitsubishi doesn’t fix what isn’t broken.

The i-MiEV is already perfectly tuned to my tastes — quick, but not jumpy like the Think. Put your foot into the pedal and it eases forward without lurching; keep your foot moving, and around 10 m.p.h. the acceleration really picks up. The driving engagement is there, along with smooth and silent torque.

That’s in D mode. Put it in B, for braking, and the regenerative system, which turns the electric motor into a generator and puts energy back in the batteries, increases its grab, forcefully decelerating the car. The i-MiEV had the most aggressive regen of the cars.

For reference, the Nissan Leaf has an 80-kilowatt motor and the Chevrolet Volt carries a 111-kilowatt motor, but electric cars are as much about digital calibration as pure power. In my view, Mitsubishi’s engineers got the drivetrain just right, mapping the power delivery to the needs of a local commuter.

Combine that with an actual back seat, air-conditioning that worked well, an adequate stereo, heated seats and a battery pack capable of about 60 miles, and you have a nice package.

The price, while not cheap, is also closer to being realistic for a minicar. The base model starts at $28,810, including shipping, which after a $7,500 federal tax credit and a $5,000 rebate in California means a net cost of $16,310 — a reasonable value proposition.

An upgrade package includes something I consider crucial: a quick-charge port capable of taking the 16 kilowatt-hour battery pack from depletion to 90 percent charged in about 20 minutes, adding 50 miles of range in the time it takes to pick up a latte.

There’s now only one DC fast charger in Northern California, in the bedroom community of Vacaville, a little more than halfway to Sacramento from San Francisco. It had been set up last year as a Pacific Gas and Electric demo unit, but was later shut down. The utility offered to fire it up for me, so I took the 45-mile journey to check it out.

The fast charger, roughly the size of a gas pump, injected 10 kilowatt hours of electric fuel (about 40 miles worth) into the Mitsubishi in 15 minutes. Twenty of these chargers will be installed throughout the Bay Area in the next year, and more will surely follow, in addition to thousands of 240-volt chargers at homes, offices and shopping malls.

Batteries full, my trip home was free of concern about range. By the time I approached the bay, Interstate 80 had become a slow-moving parking lot of mostly solo drivers surrounded by two tons of metal. My Mitsubishi crept along at 10 m.p.h. like every other vehicle, except it was the only car not spewing emissions, not making a sound and not using a drop of gasoline. My cost per mile, about 3 cents, was a fraction of the expense for my fellow commuters (about 12 cents a mile for a gasoline car getting 30 m.p.g.).

Given their oversize price tags, the E.V.’s I evaluated — except perhaps the Mitsubishi — have little hope for market success. Their prospects were made tougher by the arrival of the Volt and Leaf, which not only offer more horsepower, passenger space and cargo capacity, but also the latest entertainment, telematics and luxury features.

Automotive history is littered with failed attempts at true innovation, products that came to market too early or too late but still signaled a direction for the evolution of the car. Decades in the future, when cities are filled with small commuter E.V.’s networked into a grid of electrified urban mobility, we may look back at the Think City, Smart ED and Mitsubishi i-MiEV as small but important steps toward shaping vehicles to truly match transportation needs.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 11, 2011

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the Chevrolet Volt has an electric engine to back up its batteries. In fact, it has a gasoline engine for that purpose.


275 Posts
Everyone complains about the pokey little Smart -- until they walk away from a nasty accident... It's heavy and pokey for a reason. These right-brained English major types just don't get it -- until they get T-boned by an F-150 truck... Then they'll get it! Whereas a Smart driver might be irritated that their air bags deployed, the drivers in the fun & peppy plush crushables will be in body bags...

17,384 Posts
Those hollow sounds he heard getting into the Mitsubishi wasn't a good thing. That means hitting anything larger than a small cat might put you in bad trouble...

And the Th!nk City basically attempted to combine the best of all compact cars into one. But if this review serves right, they're going to be really unreliable little cars. I doubt their safety as they don't provide actual ratings on their official safety page.
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