Smart ForTwo 2012 Review
The car fairies come to visit me this week as I sleep in Stuttgart, not far from the birthplace of the automobile more than 125 years ago. While I am catching some shut-eye, they wave fairy dust over the Smart ForTwo I have parked in the hotel garage. Or so it seems.
As I jump back into the tiny Smart, preparing to battle the commuter traffic on a run to Daimler central just outside of town, I glance down at the fuel gauge and I'm stunned for a just second to see it is magically back on the full mark.
I don't recall a petrol station. But then I do remember this is not just an ordinary Smart, and I had better disconnect its electrical umbilical cord before selecting Drive.
This car is a Smart ForTwo Electric Drive and it's part of an evaluation fleet of more than 1000 cars racking up kilometres and experience across Europe. The first of the fleet hit the road in London in 2007 and have been followed by cars in a range of big cities as far apart as The Netherlands and home base in Germany.
The plug-in Smart is now in its second generation - with a third to come later this year - and Daimler says production has topped 2000 cars for destinations in 18 countries. The first real-world electric car from the Daimler family is promised for Australia, but the final details - on-sale date and the crucial price - are still unknown.
"It's under evaluation. We're looking to bring a small number in initially, to trial them in our driving conditions," says David McCarthy, speaking for Mercedes-Benz.
"The big stumbling point is the price at this point. It's probably going to be pretty close to $30,000. It will be at least a 50 per cent premium on the petrol car."
But what is known is that, unless owners have a solar array on the roof, the vast majority of these Smarts will be running on coal-fired electricity and that's not so smart. Still, Benz is pushing ahead with a potential plan that would make it the third all-electric car in Australia, after the tiny and tinny Mitsubishi iMiEV and the impressive Nissan Leaf.
"Hopefully in the next month or so we'll have a decision. We've got a bit of interest but we deliberately haven't talked about it until we've driven the car in local conditions," says McCarthy.
The ForTwo is an ideal subject for electrification. In fact, when the tiny city car was born in the 1980s - as the Swatchmobile, an idea from Swatch boss Nicolas Hayek - it was originally intended to be a plug-in battery car.
Things changed and by the time it hit the road in 1998 it had gone petrol, and today's ForTwo is still motivated by a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine in the tail that produces 52 kiloWatts with claimed economy of 4.7 litres/100km.
The switch to the latest ED package puts a lithium-ion power pack, sourced from Tesla, into the car together with an electric motor good for 20kW in constant running, and 30 at peak. The maximum speed is 100km/h, acceleration takes 6.5 seconds to 60km/h and the range is a claimed 100 kilometres.
But when ED3 arrives this year, a new battery and other changes will mean 35kW - and a petrol-rivalling 50 at pen - a top speed of 120km/h, 0-60km/h in five seconds and a range better than 135 kilometres.
The design of the SmartTwo is much as it's always been - short, stumpy and very different. That difference has not worked well in Australia, where parking is not as precious as it is in Paris or London or Rome. But some people like the idea of a two-seater city runabout and the Smart delivers with a look that is unique.
The Smart ED - for Electric Drive - has alloy wheels and is nicely fitted out in the cabin, with two dash-top gauges - they stick up like crab's eyes - to measure battery life and current power use. The plug-in cable is nicely integrated into the bottom half of the rear hatch, which splits with a glass upper for easy access, and the plug-in point is tucked into what would normally be the filler for the fuel tank.
The latest Smart is a four-star car in Europe, but that's not the ED. So it's hard to know exactly how it will go, despite Daimler promises that it will be as good as the regular car.
It comes with ESP and ABS, as you'd expect, and safety has always been a priority - with massive changes to everything from the suspension to the weight balance even before the first car was sold. But it's still a tiny car and you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end if someone in a Toyota LandCruiser made a mistake.
I have driven a bunch of electric cars and the Smart ED is one of the nicest, and most relevant as a green city runner. It's never going to rival a Falcon at the lights, or have the carrying power of a Commodore, but it answers the needs of a lot of people who are now even looking at scooters for inner-city chores and trips.
The Smart feels way, way more solid than the iMiEV, while the price will easily undercut the Leaf. But, there are a bunch of buts.
Any Smart car makes a lot of sense in Europe, where roads are crowed and parking is tight, and the electric car is even smarter because it is zero emission when running. But even the worse of Sydney and Melbourne traffic is no match for Paris at peak time.
The Smart ED is also slow. Very slow. It gets away ok, and is fine up to about 50km/h, but then it battles to add pace and tops out at a GPS-measured 101km/h.
I have not driven a car so tardy as my original 1959 Volkswagen Beetle, which means you have to be thinking all the time about maintaining momentum and keeping out of the way of quicker traffic. The Smart is alright on a highway, but hills are a challenge and you really need to keep an eye on the mirrors.
Stil, it's a fun car. And a very green car. It's also feels more substantial than I remember from earlier ForTwo runs, rides well and has good brakes and handling for the size and pace of the car.
The electric systems are totally inconspicuous and cause almost zero fuss - although the plug-in cable could get dirty if you don't have an enclosed garage or charging spot. My German car comes without onboard satnav, which should be standard to help with locating charge points.
And that's the only remaining question. It's extremely easy to plug the Smart ED into a regular socket, and an overnight charge is no drama, but there are still doubts about range.
The car easily lasts for 80 kilometres in Germany despite lots of full-throttle work, with the dial still showing half a charge on the 16 kiloWatt-hour battery, and the fairy visit means it's ready for more than another 80 the following morning. It's tough to know until I get a Smart ED home, but it's a car I like and - even at $32,000 - it could be a good thing for Australia.
A great way to get around in Europe with potential for solid support down under.
At a glance
Smart Electric Drive
Price: estimated $32-35,000
Engine: AC permanent magnet synchronous electric
Transmission: single speed, RWD
Body: two-door coupe
Body: 2.69m (L); 1.55m (w); 1.45 (h)
Range and Specs
|Cabrio||1.0L, PULP, 5 SP AUTO||$4,840 – 7,150||2012 Smart Fortwo 2012 Cabrio Pricing and Specs|
|Coupe||1.0L, PULP, 5 SP AUTOMATED||$4,510 – 6,710||2012 Smart Fortwo 2012 Coupe Pricing and Specs|
|Coupe Night Orange||1.0L, PULP, 5 SP AUTOMATED||$5,060 – 7,370||2012 Smart Fortwo 2012 Coupe Night Orange Pricing and Specs|
Lowest price, based on third party pricing data