Electric Smart Car Coming to the US: Test Driving the Prototype (Video)


All photos courtesy of Stuart Schwartzapfel, Man on the Move

No car made a better candidate for getting an EV upgrade than the Smart Car -- it is, after all, a compact, urban commuter vehicle that's securely endeared itself to drivers who value efficiency and innovation. The tiny two-seater was just begging to be made electric from the day it rolled out of production. And Smart has done exactly that: The company just unveiled the prototype of the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive soon coming to the US, and invited us down to take it for a spin.The first thing you note upon seeing the fleet of EVs is that the signature body of the Smart car remains undeniably distinctive, despite being on the market for years -- whether you chuckle condescendingly or smile approvingly when you see the tiny Smart cars putt by is a matter of preference. I fall into the latter category, as I've always appreciated the innovative streak in Smart's drive to create a smaller and more efficient automobile.

The problem was, with the first round of Smart cars, that innovation was only skin deep: Sure, you could park them anywhere, but the mileage, while certainly better than average, left serious fuel efficiency aficionados wanting. An average of 32 mpg, the mileage one test driver recorded, is hardly too impressive for such a small, lightweight car. The automated manual transmission in the original also garnered major complaints for being too clunky and unwieldy.

But now, concerns about fuel efficiency have been eradicated altogether: The Smart ForTwo Electric Drive is 100% electric. Clumsy gear-shifting is out of the picture too, of course. Without those constraints, the Smart feels like a brand new vehicle -- one that's simply great fun to drive in the city.

Like other EVs, the Smart prototype was so quiet you couldn't even tell it was on -- when I turned the key to take off for a spin around Park Slope in Brooklyn, a Smart employee had to tell me I was to go. Traveling at speeds of 30 and up only produced a quiet whine, still a novel experience for those (like me) accustomed to the growl of an internal combustion engine. Listen:

The Smart Electric Drive was nimble and light (despite adding a couple hundred pounds in the form of an electric battery), plenty responsive, and accelerated gracefully, though not rapidly. The interior is far from spacious, but that, of course, is the point. There's plenty of room for two (medium-sized) people and a little luggage -- not much else. But that compactness makes parking in a city like New York much, much easier. All told, I have to say I truly enjoyed driving the little guy.

As for the stats, I only have the numbers SmartUSA gave us, and certainly, they're encouraging. Smart says that a conservative estimate for the battery life is 83 miles, which is certainly more than ample for urban commuting. The company stressed that this typically translates into 4-5 hours of travel at city speeds, and required an average of 1-2 charges a week.

Now, the big remaining question is how much the Smart EV will cost -- the 250 hand-made prototypes being delivered this fall will lease for $599 month (after the government EV rebates are factored in), or a $44,000 value. There's no word on how much the mass-produced model will cost consumers when it's ready, which will reportedly be in 2012. But certainly, the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive is one of the top EVs to watch -- it's perhaps the most ideal car for urban commuting I've seen yet.

My test drive partner Stuart Schwartzapfel of Wired and Man on the Move, has more info and pics.

More on Smart Cars and EVs
Half-Price Parking for Smart Cars in 350 New York City Garages ...
Smart Car Vending Machine in Japan

Tags: Alternative Energy | Electric Cars | Transportation | United States