How Smart Electric Drive betters its gas-powered sibling: Motoramic Drives

September 16, 2013

For those who’ve never been to San Francisco and have seen Ken Block’s Gymkhana video, the foggy city looks like an ideal urban playground for cars. But commute there and you know it’s a metropolitan nightmare, where the few available parking spaces barely fit a Mini Cooper (the original from the ‘60s, not the larger BMW), and the agonizing crawl to the freeway on-ramp makes you realize why many locals don’t bother driving.

In such snarled, belligerent traffic, driving a large sedan or SUV feels like you’re maneuvering a battle tank — which makes a city car like a Smart ForTwo ideal. Problem is, the Smart has a notoriously jerky transmission that makes you head bang with every shift, and the torque is barely adequate for those arduous inclines. But as our day drive of the Smart Electric Drive in San Francisco showed, the company has largely rectified those shortcomings, and it’s the first Smart car that I’d consider buying (if I didn’t live in dull, wide-open suburbia).

The electric drivetrain fits the car on a lot of levels. For one, the 17.6 kWh battery is slung underneath the cabin and in the center, making it feel more squat and poised when cornering. Although 47 hp may not sound like much, the car can boost up to 76 hp for two minutes, making stop-and-go traffic in the San Francisco hills a breeze. And if you’re spending a lot of your time gridlocked at intersections traffic, that 107 MPGe quickly pays off, even with its modest 76-mile (59 on highway) range. The lack of gears with the Electric Drive also means you’re no longer fighting the transmission, and power delivery is smooth at any speed. A fully depleted battery takes 6 hours to charge back up with a 240-volt charger, and 14 hours for the standard outlet plug, which is practical enough for the average commute.

But I had one issue with the ForTwo going electric: it lacks the efficiency coaching features of other electrics and plug-in hybrids. I had no idea what was the most efficient cruising speed, or how light I should be on the brake or gas pedal to get the most out of every mile; the only hint was a vague percentage figure on the dash’s trip computer. What makes electric cars — whether a Tesla or Toyota — engage like a video game is that geeky interaction, and not having that takes a lot of the high-tech fun away from the Smart.

Dynamically, I also wished the Smart Drive Electric had softer damping — the ride felt brittle on any road that wasn't glass-smooth. The hard, foamy-feeling seats didn’t help either, which lacked adequate bolstering and support.

But what makes the Smart Drive a compelling buy is its price point: although it starts at $25,750 including the destination charge, if you factor in the $7,500 federal rebate, an additional $2,500 rebate for Californians, and the $2,000 "marketing assistance" (an ambiguous, rebate-like savings that a dealer may or may not pass on to you), you’re potentially spending $13,750 on a fully electric car.

While that may not make the city-commuting slog more enjoyable, the savings to your wallet definitely will be.