We drive the smartest electric car in town

As the world comes to terms with alternative energy vehicles, it is clear that there is going to be resistance to change, especially where utility, charging time and opportunity cost are concerned.

While most hybrid cars are more or less direct replacements for the pure internal combustion engine versions of the same vehicle, a city car, and especially so an electric car, has to be good enough as a stand alone vehicle to make people want to own or lease it.

The smart Electric Drive, especially in Cabriolet form, is such a car, and its appeal is broadened by the fact that it is also available as a personalised smart Brabus electric drive in both Coupe and Cabriolet versions.

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The roads in downtown Miami are not as smooth as they look, and are littered with plenty of imperfections that you feel rather than see. Where the previous smart (451) electric drive, which I tried in New York a few years back, would have crashed and banged over these bumps, I was pleased to note that the all-new chassis of the latest smart (453) takes them in its stride.

Cruising on fast moving freeways is now actually an enjoyable experience, the strong torque of the three-phase synchronous electric motor quickly whisking you up to highway speeds with plenty in reserve.

Push the right pedal down firmly from 100km/h and you feel that plateau of torque pushing you smoothly forwards at a pace that allows you to exploit gaps in the traffic with no stress.

The electric motor in the standard car has 55kW (75hp) and 130Nm of torque, which allows it to scoot to 100km/h in 11.7 sec. The Brabus version has 60kW and 135Nm for a 10.2 sec 0-100km/h sprint, and the same 130km/h top speed.

This enhanced power does not chip into the cars range, which remains between 145km and 160km on a full charge. Using the air-conditioning and cruising at 120km/h results in a realistic range of around 120km.

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While not exactly sports car grade in fingertip communication, the electric power steering has sufficient feel and feedback to let you know what the front wheels are doing. Importantly, the back axle follows the front wheels into a bend with a feeling of both agility and stability that engenders a high level of driver confidence.

The improvement in stability at highway speeds over its predecessor is also very apparent. Because top speed of the ED is limited to 130km/h to conserve battery charge, the Electric Drive operates well within the capabilities of a chassis designed to cope with much higher speeds in its conventionally engined versions.

Today, every single small car espouses Sir Alec Issigonis’ space efficient packaging concept of front-wheel-drive and a transverse engine, first presented to the world in 1959 in his legendary Mini.

Over half a Century on, the one consistent failing of every front, and indeed four-wheel-drive car, is the physical constraint that having front axle driveshafts imposes on its turning circle.

With a rear positioned engine driving the rear wheels, and front wheels in housings designed for maximum articulation about the horizontal plane, the new smart fortwo boasts the best turning circle in the business at 8.75m. You can consider its ability to turn on the proverbial dime a badge of honour for the quintessential two-seat city car.

Dr. Ralph Knorpp explained that the 17.6 kWh Accumotive Lithium-ion battery and motor weigh a total of 160kg, which is hardly more than the 150kg of the internal combustion engine and its transmission.

smart fortwo electric drive

Electrical energy consumption combined: 12.9 kWh/100km; CO2 emissions combined: 0 g/km

The battery contains 93 cells and is coupled to a 3.3 kW on-board charger. Connected to a 230v household power socket, the battery takes around seven hours to fully charge. A wall box will cut around an hour from this while a dedicated three-phase 400v/22 kW charger will provide a full charge in one hour.

Importantly, placing the battery pack in the middle of the car, at the lowest point in the floorpan, with the electric motor between the rear wheels means that both the centre of gravity and weight distribution carry a physical advantage over other smart models whose internal combustion engine and gearbox sit at the rear. No wonder then that this car feels unerringly stable at speed.

The cabin of the new ED is quiet, in fact much quieter than any other small car I have driven recently. The fact that this third generation smart has very good NVH characteristics stands the mechanically silent ED in good stead. And if you are a pedestrian, take note that the electric motor is so quiet that authorities have asked smart to come up with an ‘engine sound’ to warn people of the cars approach.

Range is a big factor, and here the 145 to 160km electric driving range of the smart ED is more than sufficient for the average city dweller. The average commuter in Singapore or KL for instance would likely find this sufficient to only require a top up charge every three or four days. Bangkok’s super jams are another matter though, and the endless stop-start traffic and the drain of the air-con would quickly eat into power reserves.

With far fewer moving parts, reliability should be a strong suit of the electric car. In the case of the smart electric drive, the warranty is 100,000 km and eight years. With the previous smart 451 electric drive you bought the car and leased the battery. With the latest car the deal is that you can buy or lease both the car and the battery.

On paper its size, manoeuvrability, good driving dynamics, and sufficient range make the new smart 453 Electric Drive a perfect car for Singaporeans who seldom have more than two in a vehicle. However, the heavy taxes make a car that is already more expensive to buy than a normal smart prohibitively so for what it is.

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Ironically, if the smart Electric Drive were a super sportscar its price would not matter, as people would then buy it as a fashion item to show off. However, the fact that no-one, no matter how wealthy, will play this game shows that in our material world, owning a zero emissions cars for its own sake is not sexy – unless you live in Hollywood!

For potential owners in Germany who enjoy relatively modest car tax, and big subsidies on zero emission cars, the smart fortwo electric drive costs 22,000 euro. The subsidy reduces it to 18,000 euro, while in the US and Canada, government subsidies are US$7,500 and C$2,500 respectively.

However, until such time as governments the world over provide enough kerbside charging points, electric cars will only be realistic propositions for homeowners or apartment dwellers with dedicated charging points in their parking areas.

Charging points apart, the end game is that if governments are really serious about encouraging zero emission cars to lower pollution in urban areas, they will have to make tax breaks attractive enough. Merely paying lip service to the zero emissions concept car will not give electric cars the critical mass they need to really take off.

Dr Ian Kuah.

Smart Car Specialist would like to thank Dr. Ian Kuah for allowing us to publish the article and photos on our blog.

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