Smart electric drive not that smart
By Jim Bray
"Zero emissions. Infinite fun." So says the smart website when you click on the link to the electric drive version of the strangely popular little city car from Mercedes-Benz.
Truth in advertising? Well, the zero emissions part is fine as long as you ignore the fact that the electricity has to come from somewhere. In my case, as an Albertan, the smart electric drive was mostly coal powered; depending upon where you live, yours could be powered by hydroelectricity or - here's where it'll really whack the "warm-mongers" - NUCLEAR!!!!!!! The horror!
The truth in advertising also falls down with the word "infinite," which is merely hyperbole and can be ignored as a product of someone's ad campaign. The slide continues with "fun." If you think this car is fun, well, there's a gulf between us that mere words will probably never bridge.
The smart is not fun. It may be cute (that's in the eye of the beholder) and it may be a decent solution for those who merely want to commute to work and back, and maybe do some limited running around in the city, but fun? Let me put it this way: the smart is the first car I can remember in which I actually felt afraid for my life, such is its wisplike demeanour (the car, not my life!). Its aerodynamics are such that it slices through the wind like a fully unfurled mainsail, and its handling is such that it feels as if it's going to tip over on just about any curve or on ramp. Yeah, that's fun with a capital F!
Oh, I wasn't always wetting my pants while driving the smart, which is a good thing because I probably would have shorted out the electric car, but when I took it onto the Deerfoot Trail freeway in Calgary - where I see smarts all the time - the combination of speed, traffic and buffeting (whether from wind or turbulence from semis, etc.) made me want to get the heck off there ASAP. So I did.
Call me a wuss if you like, but I've driven high end sports cars that were less of a handful and less intimidating to drive on the road.
Now, this isn't a criticism of the electric drive. I actually didn't mind the electric aspect of the car and thought that it could make for a decent commuter as long as you take valium before you "fire" it up. No, the electric aspect of the smart only means you have to plan your driving to ensure it doesn't leave you on the roadside when the battery is depleted. And charging it back up, if you don't have a fancy fast charger, is an overnight (or equivalent) procedure, so you need to take the timeline into account.
I had no issues with the charge, since I only took it on drives of a maximum of about 30 kilometres one way and had the luxury of charging it overnight. But if you're heading from, say, Ottawa to Toronto, you'd better either plan to spend a couple of days on the road or have a really, really, really loooong extension cord. Or take the bus.
No, it isn't the limits of electric cars that rubbed me the wrong way. It's the smart as a whole. It's really hard to find a bad car these days; I often find ones that don't particularly speak to me as an individual, but I can generally and at least grudgingly see why other people would find them appealing. I can't say that for the smart, and am actually gobsmacked that I see so many of them around.
I was actually thinking of starting this piece off with advice from my late mother, that if you don't have anything nice to say, it's better to say nothing. That, however, would have made for a very short column: the smart is easy to park, has a great turning circle, and has a decent greenhouse - though the latter point actually works to your detriment because you can see all the trucks, buses, and oafs - oaves? - swarming around you in traffic. I felt as exposed and at risk of being hit by other drivers as if I had a "Baby on Board" sign in its window.
Mercedes-Benz Canada's sample smart electric drive came with a charger with, unofficially, "quick" and "interminable" charge settings. The quick charge did a good job of getting the smart ready for the next day's short trip, but I got very bored waiting for the other setting to work its magic. You're advised not to use an extension cord with the charger, but such is the nature of Chateau Bray that I had to use one if I didn't want to park the smart on my lawn, near the outlet. I was willing to try that, but my dear wife thought otherwise. Heck, she wanted me to park it in the alley where no one would see it…
The actual charging process is easy; just plug the thing into the car the way you'd put in a gas pump nozzle - except that unlike gassing up you don't have to stand there while it charges. Which is a very good thing! A charge would let me commute from my home in the suburbs to downtown Calgary and back, three or four times, so if I were unlucky enough to work downtown (and owned a smart), the car would handle the job of commuting just fine. According to Natural Resources Canada, and Mercedes-Benz, a range of 109 kilometres "can be achieved" (undoubtedly downhill in warm weather with all the electronic stuff - radio, heater, etc. - turned off).
Inside the smart's tiny cabin there's room for two regular sized people and a couple of bags of groceries, contraband or whatever. And that's it. Want to go on a vacation trip? Chances are you'll need to haul a trailer behind the smart, which you really don't want to do.
Starting the smart is accomplished via a conventional key, located Saab-like down on the centre "console." There's virtually no noise, of course, because of the electric drive, though that doesn't matter "at speed" because there's plenty of road noise to intimidate you.
The cabin is kind of cute. Atop the dashboard extrude two little pods, one for the amount of charge you have left and the other to show you how much "power" you're accessing. The pods reminded me of the space aliens in Monty Python's Life of Brian, with their single eyes held above their heads. I had to laugh at that.
There are paddles behind the steering wheel, too, but they aren't for shifting (there's no conventional transmission to shift and - hey, I found something else to like! - there's no CVT either). Rather, they control the "engine braking" feature and how much energy is recovered when you ease off the "gas" pedal.
Obviously, the car doesn't use gas, but I hesitate to call that pedal the "accelerator," what with the car's advertised horsepower of 75. To be fair, the manufacturer claims it was quicker off the line than three high performance cars, but I daresay its advantage wouldn't last past first gear in those other cars.
Still, I had no trouble keeping up with other traffic; I just hated doing it - and every time you goose the "gas" the charge meter looks at you with sadness and contempt, and lowers its value accordingly.
The interior is quite minimalist, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, though it means you'll have to eschew some creature comforts. You can add optional surround sound audio and an anti-theft systems but, really, anyone who'd steal this car deserves what he/she/it gets.
I nearly forgot to mention the gobs of understeer when you try to turn the smart. Not only does it feel top heavy, but it's reluctant to accept your inputs on the steering wheel - and the short wheelbase makes bumps in the road feel worse. As I noted in my review of the Gaia-raping diesel smart back in 2009, perching inside the car reminded me of riding the Tilt-A-Whirl at the fair, though the latter is more fun and feels safer. Still, the smart's seats are comfortable enough, and the driving position is reasonable.
When I took the smart through a touchless car wash, I discovered that this supposedly eco-friendly car is so short that a lot of the water just splashed harmlessly and wastefully onto the ground behind it as the robot sprayed a rear end that wasn't there.
The smart fortwo electric drive coupe starts at $26,990 and the cabriolet starts from $29,990. If you're the type who insists that your neighbours help you pay for your private vehicle, you can avail yourself of provincial rebates in some areas. But you'll still end up having to live with a smart.
On the other hand, you can get a Nissan Micra for just under 10 grand, stripped (the car, not you), or a low end Toyota Yaris for about $15K, both of which are far nicer, as cars - and you can buy a whole lot of gasoline for the extra cash the smart costs right off the bat.
I know, I know, that isn't the point: it's all about zero emissions - except that zero emissions is bunk. For every feel good, smug emitting electric car sold, emissions from the electrical plant you'll need to send you the juice to charge it will increase. So while electric cars can have benefits, decreased global emissions ain't one of them.
And you'd still be stuck driving a smart fortwo.
Copyright 2015 Jim Bray
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