Small car, big problem
The big problem with the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is a four-letter word: Bolt. Offering an EPA-certified 238 mile range for less than $30,000 USD—after a potential $7,500 USD federal tax credit—Chevy’s all-new electric car is the benchmark in terms of the distance-per-dollar it delivers. The 2017 Fortwo Electric Drive, the fourth-generation electric-powered version of Daimler’s pint-size city car, is expected to have an EPA-rated range of between 70 and 80 miles (12.7 and 128.7 km), and—based on the pricing of the previous generation model—will probably cost about $25,000 USD. In the context of the Bolt, the math doesn’t add up.
It’s a problem Smart boss Annette Winkler shrugs off. “There’s no pressure,” she says when asked if the Chevy had impacted the launch of the Electric Drive. “We asked U.S. customers whether the range was sufficient. Most travel 40 miles (64.4 km) a day, so it’s perfect as a second or third car.” Yes, but as auto industry marketers have long understood, this is a business driven not so much by needs as wants. And unless you’re one of the few people in the U.S. who absolutely, positively needs an electric vehicle no more than 106.1 inches long, chances are you’re going to want the electric car that takes you a lot farther for the money, and is roomier and more fun to drive.
In other words, the Chevy Bolt.
Which is a shame, because the Electric Drive is easily the best of the new Smart lineup. It’s smoother, quicker, and quieter than its internal combustion engine powered siblings, thanks to the rear-mounted 81-hp three-phase synchronous motor that delivers 118 lb-ft of torque the moment you squeeze the accelerator pedal. There’s none of the shuddery vibration you get from the turbocharged 89-hp 0.9-liter three-cylinder gasoline engine on startup, no muffled moan under load, and no surging as the six-speed dual clutch transmission shuffles through the ratios. Just silence, then a silky surge of acceleration that’ll get you to 60 mph in about 11.4 seconds. That’s about two-tenths of a second quicker than the gas-engined Smart Fortwo cabrio.
The Electric Drive rides better than the regular smart, too, thanks to the 17.6 kW-hr battery pack mounted under the floor. That extra mass takes the edge off the sharper vertical inputs into the suspension, though the short, short wheelbase means there’s still a lot of fore-aft pitching. The weight’s down low, too, which helps cornering stability, though the low-geared steering and relatively low grip tires—both deliberately designed to prevent large transient g-loadings upsetting this tall, narrow car—mean there’s little to get the enthusiastic driver… er… enthused.
Of course, that’s not the point of the Smart Fortwo. The point of the Smart Fortwo is that it’s 106.1 inches long. It’s designed to transport two adults in modest comfort through crowded cities with narrow streets and not much room for parking. Cities like Rome and London, for example, which are two of Smart’s biggest markets. Here in North America what Winkler calls “Smart cities” are San Francisco, Portland, San Diego, and Miami. Niche products don’t get much more niche than this.
But if size matters, the Electric Drive is the smartest of the Smarts, and the version that best fulfills the promise of a true city car.
“In the 1990s we always believed the Smart would be an electric car because it is an urban car,” says Winkler. “And now we’re there.”
In Europe, Daimler offers electric drive versions of all three Smart models – Fortwo coupe, Fortwo cabrio, and the Forfour foor-door—but North American customers will only be able to order the coupe version. However, with Electric Drive models accounting for 25 to 30 percent of previous generation Smart Fortwo sales in North America, and, says Winkler, 97 percent of existing Electric Drive owners saying they would recommend it for urban driving, she’s clearly expecting the 2017 model to deliver increased sales.
There’s just one big problem…
The Tech Stuff
- The 17.6kW-hr lithium-ion battery comprises 96 cells made by LG, and is assembled in Saxony by Daimler subsidiary company Deutsche Accumotive. Improved chemistry means efficiency has gone from 15.1 kW-hr per 62 miles (99.8 km) to 12.9 kW-hr per 62 miles, and 17.2 kW-hr of the total charge can be used to power the vehicle. Standard recharge takes about 2.5 hours, with a fast charger dropping that to 45 minutes, and the battery is guaranteed for eight years and/or 60,000 miles (96560.6 km).
- The electric motor is built in Renault’s Cléon plant in northern France. The motor drives the rear wheels through a single fixed ratio, with top speed electronically limited to 80 mph (128.7 km/h) to maximize range. To reverse the Smart Electric Drive, the engine simply spins in the opposite direction.
- Switching to eco mode limits the maximum speed, changes the acceleration mapping, and increases regeneration. Even in the highest regeneration mode, the Smart cannot be accelerated and slowed just with the accelerator pedal, as Smart engineers say research showed 50 percent of customers hate “one pedal” driving.