Smart Car Goes Electric

2011 smart for two electric drive.

The various gas stations around Southern California have put away all their number 3’s and stocked up on lots of 4’s. The price of a gallon of regular unleaded has shot well past the $4 per gallon mark. Even if or when it goes back down, it won’t go down very far.

This past week, I didn’t really pay much attention to what the prices were at the pump, because I was scooting around on electric power in the new smart fortwo electric drive. (Yes, the company does the lower-case spelling of everything as part of their branding, even though like most people, I prefer to capitalize proper nouns.)

You’re probably familiar with the regular Smart, which carries a tiny gasoline engine in the rear, and while cute, has gotten mixed reviews since debuting a few years ago. I was never a big fan of how the transmission shifted gears or the mediocre fuel economy considering its size, but I really like this plug-in electric version.

From the outset, the Smart was designed to work as an EV. Under the rear cargo floor where the conventional model hides its three cylinder engine, the electric motor and charging circuitry is housed. And under the seats, a battery pack occupies the space normally taken up by the fuel tank.

Outwardly, the electric Smart doesn’t look any different from the gasoline one, save for a spiffy white and green color scheme that includes handsome green alloy wheels. You might also notice that there’s no tailpipe, and there’s just one subtle badge at the rear. Most people who saw me in traffic never gave this car a second look.

But anyone who might have driven the gasoline Smart and came away unimpressed should really give this electric version a look. The car has finally found its niche: as an efficient commuter car for short trips. It’s quick, smooth, quiet and has plenty of room for two tall people plus a bit of luggage.

Charging is done via a connector that plugs into a slot behind the hinged fuel door where you’d normally find a gas cap. Owners are encouraged to install a 240 volt charging cord at their homes, and at that voltage, the battery can be replenished in 4-6 hours. Using the 120 volt charger found in the trunk (and a conventional household outlet), that time jumps to 12-15 hours. Cost to fill the battery is about $2 at current residential electric rates.

Once you’re charged up, you’re good to go anywhere a regular car can go, even the freeway. Top speed is just about 65 miles per hour, and even though that’s the speed limit on most of our local freeways, you’re better off staying to the right. Venturing into the left lanes will earn you the ire of many commuters, altruistic saving of the planet notwithstanding.

Smart USA says the range of the batteries can vary between 63 and 98 miles (I guess they don’t like to round their numbers), and during my admittedly short runs in the car, that seems about right. My radio co-host drove a Smart EV from his home in northeast Orange County to the Universal City area, and after the 36 mile one-way trip, the battery gauge was showing 60% remaining.

The examples we drove were part of a limited run of 250 electric Smarts that are available for lease to those who want to be early adopters. The bad news is that the monthly lease price is $599, or $649 if you prefer the cabriolet. Being first to be green isn’t always cheap.

But next year, the car will go into volume production and the price will be much more manageable. Smart isn’t quoting numbers just yet, but I think it’s going to have to be under $400 a month to make it a viable choice. One number they are knocking about is a range more like 100 miles thanks to an improved battery.

This week I’m back to burning $4+ gasoline like everyone else, but for my time with the little battery-powered Smart, I felt quite wise.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @davekunzcars


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