The Green Future of Mercedes-Benz: The New Electric Smart Fortwo

(Image: Jacob Gordon)

Fully-electric Smart cars have been zipping around roads in various forms for some time. But now, Daimler AG, Smart's German daddy company, is ramping up to roll out the second-generation of its battery-powered Smart fortwo--this time taking advantage of its ace in the hole: a 10% ownership stake in Tesla Motors. The upshot will be a more powerful, longer-range EV that will be widely available by 2012.

As you know, I've been writing about Daimler AG (owner of Mercedes-Benz and Smart) quite a bit lately (see my overview and S-Class hybrid test drive). My impression is that the company's green-technology ambitions are not well known in the US and that a closer inspection is worth while.

Since it's debut, electric conversion enthusiast have loved getting their mits on the tiny Smart, which lends itself well to battery power. In fact, Smart claims the fortwo was designed with electric-drive components in mind from the very start, even when it was available only in gasoline and diesel models. Now, as the second-generation of the Smart EV gets ready to hit the assembly line next month, the Smart fortwo may be one a step closer to its true calling.

That said, let's hope it's not just a step, but a leap. I had a chance to drive a first-generation Smart EV at the this year's Frankfurt auto show (courtesy of my Daimler hosts) and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Even for simply threading through stop-and-go Frankfurt traffic, the car feels sadly underpowered and is rather clumsy to handle, even for its fantastically small size.

I wasn't given a chance to drive the second-generation fortwo, but there are reasons to be hopeful that it has evolved significantly. Most notable is the presence of Tesla DNA. Back in May, Daimler bought a 10% stake in Tesla Motors for $50 million. The new Smart is the first joint project between the two companies, and will get its lithium-ion battery and charging device straight from the Tesla labs.

electric smart car cutaway charging photo
(Image: Jacob Gordon)

In fact it was the Smart fortwo that brought the two companies together. Elon Musk explains in the San Francisco Business Times: "I met with global head of R&D; and asked them what's needed for us to work together. They said, 'If you can produce a Smart prototype that would be very helpful.' We did in very short order, and that was the clincher for them working with us on the Smart."

Here are some basic stats on the second-generation electric Smart fortwo: It will be produced in Hambach, France and will carry a 30 kW rear-mounted motor with 120 Newton meters of force. The battery from Tesla Motors will have a 14 kWh capacity, offering 135 kilometers of range (about 84 miles).

smart electric car cutaway rear photo
(Image: Jacob Gordon)

The new electric Smart will initially be offered on a four-year lease to customers in selected cities, but by 2012 it will be produced in "large volumes" and be widely available for sale. The first cars off the line will go to drivers in Berlin as part of the E-Mobility Berlin program (according to Wikipedia this is "the world's largest joint project for environmentally friendly electric cars"). After that will come Hamburg, Paris, Rome, Milan, Pisa, and Madrid, as well as "other European cities and the USA." According to a Smart EV product manager, select US cities will get the car in mid-2010.

smart fortwo electric cutaway side photo
(Image: Jacob Gordon)

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