Since the official launch of the Smart Fortwo in October 1998, the little company within Daimler has never made a profit. Far from it. Not for lack of trying, certainly. Many of us know well the story of myriad attempts to force the world to adopt the Smart way of living in the automotive sense, only to have the various chapters conclude in a disillusioning crash and financial burn.
Smart is still trying desperately to find its proper path as a global player that sells rather well – and not just in London and a few Italian and German cities. They insist that China is the great frontier nowadays for the Fortwo in all of its trims, and they still want to figure out North America.
Is electricity the only way to force the breakthrough? We drove the previous generation Smart Fortwo Electric Drive a couple of years ago and had an amazingly good time at it. The punch for traffic holeshots was addictive, and the size of the trinket-on-wheels is ideal for big-shouldered cities – this cannot be debated no matter your personal feelings about the car.
But whereas the Germans and Roger Penske firmly believed that crisis-stricken Americans would come in droves to the Smart dealer, begging for a Fortwo of any type given the model's efficiencies, Americans never made the transition of seeing the Fortwo as anything but a purchase for when you have spare change lying around and want a third toy in the garage. And young buyers who can only afford a single vehicle generally want that car to have luggage space and four seats. A more reasonable bang for buck doesn't hurt either.
Seeing as electric vehicles are slowly convincing us (very slowly) that there's some sense in their costing more than traditional-engine cars, Smart sees this as a big opportunity to offer something that still has an inflated price and more premium early adopter lifestyle aura. We have our significant doubts about all of this working, but let's get on with the drive.
Smart had us in Berlin recently (U.S. drives are taking place now) for the first drive of the third generation Smart Fortwo Electric Drive. A "generation" in electric car terms is more frequently a sign of a significantly updated powertrain and not a dramatically changed exterior, so these e-generations last about two years, three at most.
This new plug-in electricity-fueled ForTwo has a constant cruising output of 47 hp and a peaky max output of 74 hp. It's tangibly twice the car.
The damned thing really works well now, clearly even better than before, and we want this exact Smart Fortwo to sell and lease like nuts on a tree.
Compared to the last version we used to slalom around New York City's finest potholes (which was rated at 27 horsepower constant output and 40 hp maximum output), this new plug-in electricity-fueled ForTwo has a constant cruising output of 47 hp and a peaky max output of 74 hp. It's tangibly twice the car. Acceleration to 37 mph (i.e. 60 kmh) was 6.5 seconds, but is now 4.8 seconds. The shocker stat, though, is acceleration to 62 mph (100 kmh): it was 26.7 seconds for the prior car. Stop laughing; Now the time is down to an actually useful and comparatively spirited 11.5 seconds. V-max arrives at a tick over 78 mph.
The single best part regarding one's interface with the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is that the reviled automated transmission made (in)famous by the gas-powered model is not present. This is a huge difference, in that its absence could make anyone at all really like the car, whereas the five-speed (previously six) automated manual with paddles frequently drove potential customers away and set off so many auto journalists. (We'll settle down now.)
The single best part is that the reviled automated transmission made (in)famous by the gas-powered model is not present.
The new single-ratio transmission is much lighter and compact than the one used on the previous-generation electric Fortwo. The 9.922:1 gear ratio smoothly delivers the hotter acceleration via the 96 pound-feet of torque from the new electric motor.
Ninety-three lithium ion battery cells, created by Daimler partner Li-Tec, are laid flat under the floor with particular automotive requirements in mind. The primary benefit of the new design is that the electric powertrain can function well anywhere between -50°F and 176°F. The possible range from a full charge of the 17.6-kilowatt hour pack is 90 miles, and a full recharge, which never happens to a typical owner or lessee, would need seven hours from a 13-amp 220-volt plug or six hours from a 16-amp plug. There is no DC quick charge option. Alas.
This new Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is expected to debut at next month's LA Auto Show with deliveries starting in the spring. Pricing for the coupe is set at $25,000 and $28,000 for the open-top, so U.S. customers will finally be able to buy/finance the car outright and not just lease it or use one occasionally through the subscription Car2go program in limited markets. That latter program will continue – and is actually set to expand to many more U.S. cities – but shoppers can now also decide to buy or lease.
In Europe, customers can choose to buy only the car while essentially renting the battery under a separate contract.
Europeans get a new program for buying or leasing called "Sale&Care," under which customers can choose to buy only the car while essentially renting the battery under a separate contract. One of the key concerns that have come up for buyers is worries over the battery pack should anything go wrong. And should battery technology evolve to a new and better level from Daimler's joint venture Deutsche ACCUmotive, then owners can, with advance notice, switch their contract to the new battery pack without any change in the terms or rates of the contract. It gets as detailed and complicated as you might imagine, but it eventually made sense to us after speaking with experts on hand in Berlin. The point is that Smart wants both to remove any anxiety regarding one's commitment to the e-car life while also seeking to make the battery packs as ecological a technology as possible, in part by allowing them to be easily switched, recycled, upgraded, etc. In the U.S., given the legal difficulty in leasing just the battery while selling the car and given the new Fortwo Electric Drive's lower price, the battery is included with the sale or lease of the car.
As stated already, the drive is spot-on for this configuration of car. On the capable low-resistance Kumho Ecsta RH11 tires (155/60 R15 74T on all corners) and with the weight of the car down low because of the battery packs under the floor, the drive was incredibly stable and without any rattles or mechanical whining. Smart has already developed a basic exterior sound that the car emits in markets where this is or will be the law for electric vehicles. The electro-hum is nowhere near as present an ingredient as on the Fisker Karma, to cite one example, but is noticeable for those pedestrians who need to hear it.
With the weight of the car down low, the drive was incredibly stable and without any rattles or mechanical whining.
Using available Smart apps that are downloadable on your smartphone (happy naming coincidence, eh?), customers can monitor every aspect of life with their Fortwo Electric Drive. There is the service that not only shows where you parked your car and relays any theft alarm that may occur, but you can also reserve a perfect parking spot (frequently with charge station) in the center of town at your preferred parking structure. You can also follow the state of recharge as your car is plugged in and you're off galavanting.
Besides this latest and most convincing electric Smart Fortwo, the company is committing to the ebike and escooter for the US.
Besides this latest and most convincing electric Smart Fortwo, the company is committing to launching an e-bike and e-scooter for the United States – all on sale/lease together here by the middle of 2014.
Will this be the long awaited turning point for Smart? We honestly hope so; rooting for Smart has been like rooting for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series again: exhausting.