Paul A. Eisenstein: Electric car a Smart choice

Paul A. Eisenstein

The auto industry is starting to embrace the concept of electrification, with plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt and pure battery-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. Even Mercedes-Benz is exploring its options with a battery-powered version of its SLS supercar.

But the German maker’s sibling brand, Smart, seems especially well-suited to enter the electric field, delivering a battery version of its nimble urban microcar, the fortwo.

Smart will launch sales of 250 Electric Drives in the U.S. late this year, a prelude to the ED’s full retail introduction as a 2013 model. We got the chance to drive a prototype in New York City, an appropriate place for a battery microcar and one of a handful of markets where the ED will initially be targeted.

But for the vivid green decals outside and some modified gauges on the dash, one might not notice this was anything other than a conventional Smart fortwo. Start it up, however, and the changes become apparent. Like other electric vehicles, there’s no engine noise, just a series of lamps and gauges lighting up. Even at 40 mph, there’s only the most subtle motor whine and a moderate amount of tire noise.

Slipping into traffic, the ED handily negotiated Brooklyn’s narrow side streets, proving itself surprisingly quick off the line.

The seemingly anemic 41 horsepower motor also generates 88.5 pound-feet of torque, tire-spinning power that comes on as soon as you step on the throttle, in contrast to a gasoline engine. Smart ED launches from 0 to 35 in less than 6.5 seconds but then largely runs out of steam.

Unlike the conventional Smart fortwo, ED uses a single gear. That’s a definite plus considering the conventional “smart shift” in the gasoline car is probably its worst feature.

The short wheelbase is an advantage when it comes to dodging and turning on narrow, crowded streets. The downside to this is that ED is vulnerable to bumps and potholes.

As with all electric vehicles, the ED has relatively limited range. Its lithium-ion batteries get 82 miles a charge, though Smart insists the battery car will more than meet the demands of city drivers who may only clock a few miles a day. Charging can take up to 14 hours on 110 volts, 8 hours on 220, and just 4.5 hours for an 80 percent recharge.

Who’ll buy the 2011 Smart ED? The maker expects 80 percent of those who’ll take delivery are corporate or government buyers. It could prove a harder sell to regular consumers. The initial 250 vehicles will be lease-only, at $599 a month and $2,500 down. Overall, that adds up to $31,252 over four years, roughly twice the price of a gasoline Smart fortwo.

Nonetheless, there are many potential buyers with the money and a desire to go green. Add the way the Smart ED fits into a crowded city like New York, and we expect the maker won’t have any trouble finding customers ready to plug in.

Paul A. Eisenstein is an award-winning journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering the global auto industry. His work appears in a wide range of publications worldwide, and he is a frequent broadcast commentator on subjects automotive.

2011 Smart Electric Drive

Miles per charge: 82.

Seats: Two.

Engine options: Single-gear electric motor, 41 horsepower, 88.5 pound-feet torque.

Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $599 a month plus $2,500 down, 48-month lease only.