2017 Smart Fortwo Electric Driven: Bigger, Better, Slower


Those who enter the car market intending to go electric have more and better choices than ever, reducing the odds that they’ll just give up and buy a fuel-efficient, gasoline-powered model instead. But what about the other way around, the shopper who goes into the dealership expecting to buy a gas car and winds up choosing an EV? Will that ever happen?

Eco-minded city dwellers may be interested in the Smart Fortwo, a specific answer to the tiny question. There is nothing like it on U.S. roads today: two doors, two seats, three itty-bitty cylinders, and casting a shadow not much larger than a can of tuna. It looks so much like it should be electric that owners probably grow tired of telling people that, no, it does, in fact, burn gasoline. So it’s a neat reversal that those thinking about the latest Fortwo might find it worth waiting until spring and snatching up the new version of the battery-powered Smart, the Electric Drive, a name unfortunately shortened to ED.

Yes, the $35K Chevy Bolt is more of a car than any other affordable electric (our last roundup was back in 2014, in which the previous ED finished sixth of six), but hear us out. While the gas-burning Smart is certainly capable of long-distance travel, that isn’t what it’s designed for, and few use it that way. It is a city car. Smart estimates an EPA-rated range in the ED of 70 to 80 miles—a distance that for many drivers would be more than adequate for urban use. And it will be a major bargain when the rebate dust settles. Pricing isn’t finalized for the U.S., but the European ED costs about 15 percent less than the car it replaces, so we expect it to start at about $23,000 before any credits are factored in.

The new Electric Drive variant does everything the gas-powered coupe can do, except for restoring its driving range in a couple of minutes at a gas station. The onboard 7.2-kW charger—a significant improvement over the previous ED’s 3.3-kW unit—can replenish the 17.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack from zero to 80 percent in 2.5 hours. That battery pack, designed by Smart and built by Daimler subsidiary Deutsche ACCUmotive, is the same capacity as before because increasing its size would raise the ED’s cost. The second-generation U.S.-market Fortwo saw a lot of beneficial updates for 2016 that transfer directly to the 2017 ED, most notably a real automatic transmission and 4.1 inches of additional width. This makes the Smart smoother to drive, a skosh roomier, and altogether more palatable. No longer does the driver rub shoulders with the passenger as if they were crammed into coach-class airplane seats; there’s even a center armrest that’s wide enough to share. The cabin is sufficiently airy that you’ll forget there are only a few inches of car behind the driver’s seat until you head-check for a lane change, when you’ll remember that you don’t need a lot of checks because the visibility and mirror positioning give great views from all angles.

The ED’s interior and exterior dimensions are identical to those of its gas cousin. The liquid-cooled battery pack occupies the space under the seats that is vacated by the 8.7-gallon gas tank, and the air-cooled motor sits right on top of the 9.34:1 direct-drive to the rear axle, where the three-banger usually lives. The one-speed transmission and 80-hp electric motor take smoothness to another (Smart) level, and there’s plenty of low-end grunt (118 lb-ft) to keep up in city traffic. We expect the dash to 60 mph will take more than 11 seconds. Yes, that’s slower than the old car—which did the deed in 9.8 seconds in the aforementioned comparison test—and slower than most of the EV field; the new-generation body imposes a substantial weight gain.

Stability at highway speeds, which was questionable in the previous Smart, is now downright sedanlike. The added width helps, and there’s also crosswind-assist technology that manages the electrically assisted power steering to counteract actual winds or even Bernoulli’s principle when 18-wheelers in the adjacent lane suck cars toward their trailers. Those trucks are as likely to pass you in a Smart ED as you are to pass them; it’s limited to 81 mph, although we saw an indicated 85 mph on our drive.

Rear-drive balance notwithstanding, this is no dynamic powerhouse. The steering is feathery, especially when exploiting the 22.8-foot turning circle with impromptu two-lane U-turns. Our biggest gripe is the car’s lazy regenerative braking—no one-pedal driving here—that is abruptly cut off by the friction brakes. (Note that we didn’t use the word blended.) A little more seat time and we might acclimate to it, but it’s far from ideal. The seats themselves are plenty comfortable for short jaunts across town, and there’s just enough room behind them for groceries. If you’re in a pinch for space, the passenger seat folds flat to make room for an IKEA flat pack, so long as you’re not too ambitious.

The ED, despite its unfortunate name, checks all the boxes a city-based electric car should to be competitive in the growing crop of EVs. And the 2017 Smart ED makes a handy tape measure for the advancement of electric-car tech: The original one we tested in 2011 needed 23.4 seconds to get to 60 mph, topped out at 63 mph, and leased for $599 a month. Now, it has evolved into the one EV that’s based on a gas-powered car that turns out to be the better choice, so long as you’re coming at it from a dedicated urban-use perspective.

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