Test Drive: Smart Finally Gets It Right with Latest Electric Car
The latest news from German automakers regarding EVs have not been very exciting. Some people even question their commitment to electric mobility. But after driving the latest electric Smart and meeting the people behind it, there's no doubt. It's real, and that the manufacturer is very serious about it.
Some people may remember the first electric Smart as being British-engineered, by specialist firm Zytek. That's over. Then, there was the second generation. They made more than 2,000 of them with batteries coming from Tesla Motors. Done. The 2013 electric Smart is something totally new, and maybe more important, it's something totally German.
The battery cells come from Li-Tec. They are assembled into packs by Deutsche ACCUmotive, a joint-venture between Evonik Industries and the Daimler group (which owns both the Mercedes and Smart brands) in a brand new factory. The electric motor is built by EM-motive, another joint-venture, this time between the Daimler Group and Bosch, its long time partner. (There were Bosch parts in every Mercedes I've seen.) Like the batteries, those motors are built in a brand new factory. It would have been easier, cheaper and faster to source parts in Asia, but they chose to build an entire supply chain. Their supply chain. Everything is controlled or owned by the Daimler group, in Germany. All the parts are built by German workers, and conceived by German engineers. This is commitment! I asked if they could sell batteries to other car manufacturers, and they said that could happen. It's clearly not a priority, though, but those cells are said to be excellent. They are the only cells in the world with the famed ceramic SEPARION® high performance separator, which is said to make them very long-lasting. I was told they could last a decade with no additional wear from fast-charging. Of course, that is the theory. We'll see in 10 years, but Daimler's engineers are not known for overpromising.
Getting into the car, my first thought was about the not very positive experience I had with the old electric Smart. I had driven it in moderate traffic conditions, and I had the surprise to find my right foot on the floor, only trying to keep up with traffic. This new model is way better, and it took me only a few seconds to find out. Manufacturer's numbers are 0 to 60 kph (37 mph) in 4.8 seconds and 0 to 100 kph (62 mph) in 11.5 seconds. Let's say it has all the power needed for city driving and more. The electric motor gives 55 kW and 96 lb-ft of torque. Unimpressive values, but more than adequate with that torque available right from zero RPM, and less than 2,000 pounds on the scale. The electric Smart is faster than a Mitsubishi electric, and probably as fast as a Nissan LEAF, at least in the city. Top speed is limited at 75 mph, making it unfit for the autobahn, but the Smart car has never been a cruiser.
The battery stores 17.6 kWh of energy and the manufacturer says it should be good for 90 miles. They've seen more than 120 miles in internal testing, and even with my spirited driving it's more than 60 miles. Charging takes seven hours on a standard European wall socket, but that can be down to one hour with the optional 22 kW charger. Driving the car is a much nicer experience than the standard gas model which suffers from an agricultural gearbox, and a very noisy engine. All the people who bought a gas Smart would dream of such a smooth driving experience. The only thing wrong is the ride quality, which can be choppy at times—but the gas model is like that too. We imagine it's difficult to engineer a comfortable suspension with a wheelbase so short, but the small size is really an asset in the city. I was in Berlin to test drive this car. I've parked and made U-turns which would have been impossible in a normal car.
There's a lot of enthusiasm in Europe right now towards very small vehicles, like the Renault Twizy. But those vehicles ask for many compromises, with limited performances and lack creature comforts. The electric Smart is not like that. It has a nice interior, and it's surprisingly roomy inside. It has two bucket seats, but like an old car it doesn't have a center console, so it has more knee room than say a Ford Focus. The air conditioning works fine. It also has heated seats and a good radio. There's everything the average commuter would want, and I'll go as far as to say that this electric Smart may be the most convincing electric car I've ever tested.
Let's think about the electric Ford Focus. In Europe, it's possible to buy a diesel Focus which has 700 miles of range for half the money, so it will be hard to sell. People are used to long range for a standard car, but not so with the Smart. This electric model is a gem because it so perfectly matches your expectations for it. It delivers. I drove a Nissan LEAF and got out wishing for more range and a bigger trunk. I had no complaints when I got out of the Smart. A better ride would be nice, but that's no deal-breaker. Range is quite limited at 90 miles, but nobody would take a Smart to drive cross-country (well, actually, some crazy people do).
The final question is price. Electric Smart is 19,900 euros in Germany ($24,330) for the standard model, and 22,496 euros ($27,504) for the open top version (VAT not included). It's possible to pay even less by leasing the battery. Prices are down 15,890 and 18,486 euros ($19,427 and $22,601) but the customer must pay 65 euros each month for the battery ($79). It sounds better to buy the car complete with the battery, but many businesses are expected to lease the battery.
All the electric Smart cars have been white and green so far, but other colors are available, and the car will be sold worldwide (left- or right-hand drive), in 30 countries. First deliveries will begin this autumn in Germany, U.S. will follow a bit later. Will it be successful? The Smart car started 14 years ago, and it got mixed results so far. A few countries, like Italy, are highly supportive of the concept, but it deserves to win the world. There is no more satisfying city car.
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