BROOKLYN, NY – Talk about contrast! My last experience with a Smart fortwo was in the winter, in the Canadian Arctic, where I went for hours at a time without sighting other vehicles or people. This time it was unmercifully hot, the streets were narrow and super-crowded and just inches separated the cars and humans.
Equally as different were the Smarts I was driving. As much as the three-cylinder conventional version was out of its element in the wide-open, high-speed expanse of the Great White North, the electric Smart was in its element here.
The Smart was originally conceived as a commuter car; a conveyance for two people in crowded urban environments. Its relatively roomy interior belied its diminutive exterior making it easy to manoeuvre in tight spaces and park where others would not fit. Of course that small size and light weight allowed the use of a small engine and the result was terrific fuel economy and very low emissions – just the ticket for city life.
What few realize is that another key aspect of that original development plan was the use of electric motors instead of internal combustion engines. With electric drive technology taking longer to reach an acceptable level, an IC (internal combustion) engine was pressed into service.
Now that battery technology has advanced to the stage where a number of manufacturers are bringing electric cars to market, Mercedes-Benz engineers have given the little Smart an electric drive system. And it is a perfect fit.
The common problem with battery electric vehicles is range – as much as 150 km on paper and in marketing bumph for the best to date, but a more realistic 75-100 in real world conditions with traffic, air conditioning or heater in play.
No problem if you live in a crowded urban centre or have a short drive to a commuter rail or bus station. An electric vehicle may not be the perfect ride for that 300-km flog to the weekend cottage or visiting the grandparents, but it clearly outshines that big gas hog for the other 90% of the time when you have short trips to work or for shopping.
The Smart fortwo electric drive was developed for this very scenario. In fact the folks on the development team can see a fleet of Smarts in most major cities, many of them available for daily rental or in fleets where you pay a monthly fee for access to one without the worry of maintenance, depreciation or the other headaches associated with vehicle ownership.
This complete departure from the norm is seen to be in touch with the desires and lifestyles of a new generation of young adults as well as a group at the other end of the age scale who only need a vehicle on occasion. That is the reason Mercedes chose this location for the global reveal of the Smart electric drive.
Stand on a sidewalk here and you are immediately reminded of Sesame Street. The vast majority of people are young adults with a heavy incidence of young children. They use a vast public transit system to get to and from work., there is very little parking space and there are corner grocery stores, bakeries, delicatessens, fruit and vegetable stands on every block – ideal candidates for a very small electric car like this.
Fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen are seen as the ultimate solution. But the technology and necessary refuelling infrastructure are a ways off. Electric outlets are everywhere – and easy to install where needed. Thus the move to plug-in electric vehicles like this one, the Nissan Leaf and others arriving in the next year or so.
Smart engineers say one issue to be resolved in the coming months as more electric vehicles come to market is a common plug that can be used in all markets around the world, whether to access 110 or 220 volts. Both are common in North American households as 220 volt services are required for clothes dryers and stoves. Much of Europe and Asis use 220-volt outlets for everything.
Batteries like those in the Smart electric drive can be recharged from both, but the 220 outlets cut the recharge time in half.
One of the key advantages not available in any internal combustion car is the pleasure of guilt-free green driving (or at least less guilty, if you're running on a coal, fossil-fuel or nuclear powered electricity grid).
The second is the convenience of recharging from home, either from a regular 110-volt outlet or a specially-installed 2220-volt charger. Being plugged in also enables you to check your car's state of charge from your internet connected computer or mobile phone.
Perhaps the coolest trick is that once the battery reaches a 75 % charge, the driver can opt to have grid power turn on and power the climate control system, so that you can enter your car cooled or warmed, and therefore won't have to sacrifice more range to get the car's interior to a comfortable temperature.
So what is it like to drive?
Think of a very sophisticated golf cart. Get in, turn a key, press on pedal and you have instant acceleration – impressive acceleration because electric motors generate their maximum torque from start. In this case 30 KW or about 40 horsepower and 89 lb-ft of torque. Obviously the system is much more complex than a golf cart but you get the drift.
Here, a few blocks from a bridge or short ferry ride across the East River to Manhattan, the Smart electric drive scoots through congested streets and around double-parked delivery vehicles with complete ease. It is all but silent, with the whine of the electric motor evident only if there is a pause in the blaring of horns and general racket that is part of this scene.
Aside from the instant and impressive power and complete lack of sound, there is no other reminder you are in anything but a conventional Smart fortwo. A quick peek at the instruments serves to remind you of the rate you are using electricity and the amount remaining in the 16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack beneath your butt, safely out of harm's way in the case of a crash. The fuel tank is located there in the IC Smart.
The conventional transmission lever activates a single-gear drive system. Put it in reverse and the electric motor simply turns in the other direction.
How much battery replacement will cost remains to be determined but look for the Smart electric drive to be available only through a closed-end four-year lease.
With all that weight positioned as low as possible the centre of gravity is also low endowing the Smart electric drive with cat-like prowess when it comes time to dodge a pothole or wayward pram pushed out between cars in the middle of the block.
There are still quite a few details to be worked out for Canada, but the Smart electric drive's unique in-town appeal and simple one-price strategy looks set to finally get the electric ball rolling in Canada.