NEW YORK CITY -- The new face of urban transportation is not some dented yellow taxi, but a tiny and sleek electric two-seater hatchback. That’s the pattern seen in the Wheego Whip Life, the Think City…and now the electric drive Smart car.
The Wheego and the Smart are kissing cousins, which gave me a bit of déjà vu when I finally drove the Smart in New York recently. (There was actually a lawsuit over that resemblance, but that’s a story best left to a link.) The Smart’s genesis can be traced back to 1972, when Mercedes first sketched a tiny two-seater city car, and to 1988, when it introduced the NAFA electric concept (with sliding doors). It always made sense for it to be an EV, because it weighs only 1,800 pounds. As it turned out, a battery pack slotted in neatly under the car, so it retains plenty of storage space.
The plug-in Smart I drove is an interim design, with batteries from Daimler partner Tesla Motors. It has an 83-mile cruising range and a zero to 60 time of…well, you’ll get there. A mass-produced car is coming for the 2012 model year, but this one is part of a 1,500-car global pilot program that will see cars on the road in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Only 250 will come to the U.S. as part of that program, so you’re in luck if you live in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Austin, Portland (Oregon) or the Boston-Washington corridor. Many will go to governments and nonprofits, but individuals like you and me will get 20 percent of them.
I think now I’ve driven just about every EV there is, with the sole exception of the high-performance Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid (and nobody’s driven that). And I also spent a week with the Passion Cabriolet version of the gas Smart, so that also gives me a perspective on driving the electric Smart. Here's a video I took while at the wheel and listening to the Beetles:
I wasn’t behind the wheel for long, and it was raining cats and dogs, but my impression was that Smart has programmed the car for range over performance -- definitely a good idea. It doesn’t chirp the tires from a standing start, as many EVs do. Instead, it just starts off with no drama and power slowly builds until you reach cruising speeds. That’s a relief after driving the choppy gas Smart. The standard Smart is also pretty noisy, but the eSmart is one of the quietest cars I’ve ever driven.
Because it’s a Smart, the l’il half-pint turns on a dime and can park in a sidewalk crack. Isn’t that what you want in the close quarters of a city, instead of the hulking Hummers and Excursions that are urban warriors in some places?
The keyhole is on the floor, in a nod to eccentric Saab design. A dash-mounted pod gauge keeps track of the state of your battery charge. You can check that on the go, too, because the car comes with an iPhone app that can access charge status remotely. I enjoyed playing with that, because it’s clearly the way electric cars have to go. Your cell phone will become a charging center, able to interact both with the car and the utility to keep the car topped up. The Smart takes three and a half hours to go from a 20 percent to an 80 percent state of charge, and Derek Kaufman, vice president of business development for Smart, estimated it can be operated at 10 to 15 percent of a gas car’s costs.
The Smart car has had a rocky road on the U.S. market since the 2008 introduction, with sales falling precipitously last year as gas prices eased. But they remain very popular in Europe, and a million Smarts are now on the world’s roads. I couldn’t believe how many were on the road in Rome when I was there recently, but they make sense for the city’s ancient roads -- you need to be able to park in a sidewalk crack. My guess is that Smarts will get even more ubiquitous globally once the electric cars arrive. This, folks, is a better mousetrap.