Berlin, Germany – The third generation of Smart’s electric car is due to arrive in Canada in late spring, 2013. But if you can’t wait, your local Smart dealer will put you on a two-wheel version this summer – the Smart ebike.
The Smart car was conceived and has been continually developed as an urban vehicle (originally by the same company that made the Swatch watch). Perhaps not surprisingly, given that focus, the brand has been a pioneer in vehicle electrification since becoming part of the Daimler family in 1994.
The first generation of electric Smarts went into play as a test fleet of 100 in London, England in 2007. The second gen Smart has found an audience of young professionals, many of whom have an active lifestyle that includes bicycles.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the company would get into the bicycle business. Its first foray into this field has yielded the Smart ebike.
I had a chance to drive both two and four-wheel electric Smarts here and can report the Mercedes-Benz subsidiary is making good use of the parent company’s immense technical and engineering resources.
The Smart ebike has a Canadian connection - two in fact. The electric system that powers it, as well as several other e-bikes, was designed and is manufactured by BionX, of Aurora, Ontario. And its control console was designed by Dartmouth, N.S. native Matthew Finbow. (See sidebar.);
This pedelec (Pedal Electric Cycle) is a hybrid of sorts – an electric motor is supplemented by a secondary power source – the rider. Or vice versa.
The small, maintenance-free , 250-watt BionX electric motor at the rear hub comes into play as soon as the rider starts to pedal. Muscle power is transferred to the rear wheel via a clean, belted carbon chain.
There is a three-speed gearbox incorporated in the hub and controlled by twisting the right-hand grip.
The BionX control unit atop the handlebars has four buttons. The two on the right determine which of four levels of power assist you want from the electric motor. Depending on how much power you use, the battery charge will last up to 100km.
A 423 Wh lithium-ion battery is cleverly contained within the frame of the bike. It can be removed for recharging from a normal socket or it can be recharged, in part at least, when the bike is in motion.
The wheel hub motor becomes a generator when the brakes are applied, sending the recovered energy to the battery. You can see the amount of recharge activity on the control display as you slow down.
On the road
While out-of-shape louts like me will take maximum advantage of the assist available from the electric motor, others may be tempted to use the ebike’s "workout" mode.
A switch on the bottom left of the controller allows the rider to use the pedals to recharge the battery. Instead of taking power from the battery to run the electric motor and help propel the bike, your leg energy is used to recharge the battery, as well as to propel the bike.
The experience is akin to riding a normal three-speed bike up a hill – successfully steeper hills as you go through the four levels available. It doesn’t take more than a second to see why they call is the "workout" mode.
The first thing you notice when pedaling is how much the ebike feels like a normal bicycle – until you realize you are not pedaling very hard. I got to a top speed of 25 km/h effortlessly.
The electric motor does not drive the bike itself – it supplements pedal power. So you have to apply some effort yourself. If you stop pedaling it will slow and come to a stop.
But it is very easy to maintain a steady speed with little effort. You only need first gear when starting off, from that point third gear will suffice on level surfaces like the 5-km test route laid out for us here alongside the famous Berlin wall.
Pricing starts at $3240 for the 26-kilo ebike which is a quality unit from road to rider.
The disc brakes are hydraulic units from Magura, the 26-in wheels are wrapped with Continental EcoContact Plus puncture-resistant tires. There is an LED light with a DRL (Daytime Running light) feature and a USB port so you can use your Smartphone as an onboard computer.
The Smart ebike was introduced to the global press here in Berlin because the bike is being built by Grace, which is headquartered in this city of 3.5-million people.
Germany is also a hot spot for electric bikes. Their sales have risen from 70,000 in 2007 to more than 200,000 in 2010. It is estimated that electric bikes will comprise 15% of the bike market by 2018.
The next step in the two-wheel direction will be the first Smart escooter. Look for it in 2014 as Smart moves even closer to its goal of weaning us from our dependence on fossil fuels.