Smart ForTwo: Drive Review

29th November 2013

Michael Woodhouse tries to smarten up his image

Let’s be honest… mention an electric car and the majority of people won’t conjure up a practical vehicle for getting around town. Their ideas will turn to milk floats perhaps, maybe even something from a sci-fi film from years gone by, but not to viable means of modern transportation.

The problem is culture. Drive any sort of electric car and you’ll be seen as a bit of an outsider; why drive something that isn’t powered by petrol or diesel? But the tide is turning; as fuel prices creep ever higher – ignoring the odd fluctuation – and batteries become better, electric vehicles start to become a little less crazy.

And I’ve noticed it. The number of Nissan Leafs is growing, even on the suburban streets I call home. Companies as large as VW and BMW have vehicles in the pipeline that should help make electric vehicles part of life. But there’s another option too: the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive.

A two seater roller skate of a car, just like its petrol-powered brother, it uses a 55kW motor and a 17.6kWh lithium-ion battery instead of internal combustion. Plug this little beast in to your domestic electricity supply and in seven hours you’ll have a range of 90 miles. Choose a fast charge system and that’s reduced to six hours; go for a three-phase connection and it’s only an hour to replenish the power. It’s not as quick as swinging round to the petrol station, admittedly, but compared to the competition it’s bloomin’ fast.

Take a seat inside and you’ll see that little has changed from the combustion engine version. It's pokey, as you'd expect, and even though it's alternatively fuelled, there is no real alternative pizazz in the interior – cheap and cheerful is the only description that fits. Out on the road the ForTwo Electric Drive feels much like a traditional car, especially a small one designed for the inner city, springing out ahead of the traffic when the lights turn green and darting between the buses and traditional cars in order to get you to your destination on time. While the top speed (78mph) isn’t mind-bendingly rapid it will reach 37mph in 4.8 seconds – so if you wanted to try traffic light drag racing, you could. Best not, though…

Unlike something powered by petrol, an electric vehicle makes very little noise (definitely not enough to roar out against the din of a city) so you do need to be even more aware of pedestrians than usual. People really won’t hear you coming and may well step into the road oblivious to your presence.

One of the advantages of electric vehicles compared to others is that they are more controllable when you’re plugged in to mains and recharging, although you’ll have to take what Smart says about the functionality open to owners through their smartphones on trust, as during my trip to Berlin to test drive the car I didn’t have the opportunity to try out everything.

Among the controls available, you can check on the state-of-charge and range of the battery. You can also plan your departure and charging times and even activate the pre-entry climate control for the interior while the vehicle is connected to a charging point – so in colder weather you can get the cabin up to a comfortable temperature before setting off.

It’s not all a bed of roses, mind you. Take the ForTwo out onto faster roads and you’ll be scared witless: it’s designed for tough urban streets and it should stay there.

And the price, and what I’ll call the ‘ownership infrastructure’, can give you a few headaches too. It starts at just over £16,000, although there are numerous options, including buying, leasing or financing. You can own the car but lease the battery, which does give some advantages: you’re assured a guaranteed battery capacity for the whole rental period (for a maximum of up to ten years, depending on the individual contract). The rental fee includes battery maintenance annually or every 12,500 miles and – in the event of a technical defect – battery replacement.

But it’s true that it’s a damn sight more complicated than buying a traditional vehicle and will require a lot more thought so you get the best fit for you.

The revolution is in full swing though. Where once only milk and eggs and orange juice were being carried around under electric power, it doesn’t seem as though it will be long before we’re all unplugging our cars from the mains before we get in and drive away. But sadly I doubt the electric ForTwo will play much of a part in it; why have a two seater roller skate when you can have a fully fledged car such as the Nissan Leaf?

Price: from £16,243
Top speed: 78mph
0-62mph: 11.5 seconds
Power: 55kW
Economy: 90 miles per charge
CO2 emissions: N/A

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