Smart ForTwo electric minicar headed to U.S. cities

CNET's Martin LaMonica takes the Smart ForTwo electric drive minicar for a ride and gains insight on the potential and challenges of electric urban commuter cars.

BROOKLYN--Fans of the Smart ForTwo can buff up their enviro-image with an electric drive version of the minicar coming to the U.S. this fall.

Smart USA offered test rides of the ForTwo Electric Drive this week here, where I got a chance to get behind the wheel and take it for a spin on the streets of New York.

Overall, the ForTwo fits the bill as a clever city car because its size makes it easy to maneuver through city traffic and park, provided that you don't have much stuff to haul around. The ForTwo Electric Drive smooths out the gasoline version's choppy transmission and lets minicar owners pull the plug on their oil habits.

Unlike other electric vehicles, the ForTwo is going after a niche audience of sustainably minded people and business owners who want a car that stands out in a crowd. But the design of the ForTwo Electric Drive is significant beyond its initial target customer because it represents a product category--small, electric city cars--with large potential but also clear challenges related to infrastructure.

Smart USA, which has seen sales of the ForTwo gasoline car drop significantly last year, understands the challenges of bringing electrically fueled cars to cities, where home garages are in short supply. It plans on bringing 250 of the ForTwo electric drive cars to the U.S. in October, offered with a four-year lease of $599 per month.

With this initial roll-out in the U.S., Smart USA expects that about 80 percent of the customers will be businesses, which generally will have the luxury of a place to charge the cars at night. With its unique look, the electric minicar will be a "rolling statement on environmental awareness and oil dependence," said Derek Kaufman, the vice president of business development for Smart USA, which is based outside Detroit.

Daimler, which owns the Smart brand and manufactures the ForTwo, will start volume production in early 2012 and sell it as a 2013 model year car in the U.S.

Park and juice
It's recommended that individuals and businesses have a 220-volt charging station installed, which is significantly faster than a regular electrical outlet. At 220 volts, the onboard 3.3 kilowatt charger can bring the battery from zero to 100 percent charge in about eight hours and from 20 percent to 80 percent charge in about three and half hours. With a regular 110-volt outlet, zero to full will take about 14 hours.

As part of a Department of Energy grant, Coulomb Technologies will install Web-enabled charging stations at individuals' homes in a handful of regions in the U.S., which will include some lucky ForTwo drivers.

What about the eager electric minicar owner without a garage? This is where electric vehicle providers targeting urban drivers need to get creative, both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world where more and more people are moving to the cities.

Smart USA is already seeking to partner with garage owners to have charging stations installed. Garage owners have an interest in electric minicars, in particular, because they take up so much less space than other cars, said Jochen Eck, who heads electric vehicle testing for Daimler, which manufactures the ForTwo.

Another likely charge station for electric city cars is offices, he said. That does limit people's options on weekends, but with a range of 83 miles, people may only need to charge a few times a week depending on driving patterns, Eck said. Top speed is limited to about 65 miles per hour.

How practical an electric ForTwo is really depends on individual driving patterns and space requirements. In many cases, the ForTwo, which first came to the U.S. two years ago, is a second or third car. In those cases, the range limit of the electric edition may not be major barrier.

Look and feel
Inside, the car does not feel small at all, as there's ample head and leg room. Like the gasoline version, there's no back seat, just a small storage space that could hold a suitcase or a few bags of groceries.

The interior controls are easy to understand and operate. The electric version sports two retro-looking dials above the dashboard, one that shows the battery charge level. The other displays how much power is being drawn from the battery during acceleration--the motor maxes out at 30 kilowatts, or about 40 horsepower. That dial also shows how the regenerative braking system boosts battery charge.

Smart USA last week released an iPhone application with a number of features, including maps and Internet radio. ForTwo Electric Drive owners can check the charge level of the car and get an estimate of how much time is required to charge the battery to run a particular trip.

My drive through the pelting rain on Wednesday afternoon was enjoyable. The handling feels solid and the turning responsive. During a few tricky turns dodging through the Brooklyn traffic, it didn't feel like I would spin out of control because the car's small.

The small size was a major asset when I finally found a parking spot, where I easily fit all 9 feet of car length into. The electric ForTwo adds 300 pounds over the gasoline version, which was first brought to the U.S. two years ago, so the acceleration may not be as peppy but I found the acceleration pretty good. The one-gear electric powertrain makes for a smooth ride, an apparent improvement over the much criticized "automated manual transmission" in the gasoline version.

With a small wheel base, you feel the bumps on the road. For kicks, a fellow journalist drove over a speed bump without slowing while I was riding shotgun and that was, not surprisingly, a nasty bump (didn't hit my head, though).

The 16.5 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack and power management system is manufactured by Tesla Motors, which Daimler invested in. When Daimler starts manufacturing these in Europe in 2012, the plan is to use its own batteries, according to Kaufman.

Charging the batteries with coal-made electricity reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about 10 percent compared to the gasoline version, while electricity from natural gas will reduce emissions by 40 to 50 percent, according to Daimler executives. Nuclear will reduce it by about 95 percent and with solar and wind, it's 100 percent, they said.

The FourTwo is in the forefront of city cars, but it's not alone in making small all-electric vehicles. The all-electric Think City , which is bit larger, is already being sold in Europe and is coming to the U.S. next year. Toyota is developing the IQ, another "urban commuter" electric minicar set for release in 2012. Of course, there are numerous small gasoline- or diesel-powered cars that will compete for potential buyers.

Electric minicars promise real benefits to cities , including reducing congestion and in-city air pollution. Since it's so early in the industry shift to electrification, cars like the ForTwo Electric Drive, which certainly can be practical, are still very much a lifestyle statement. Whether electric city cars become commonplace because they are cheaper to fuel and reduce pollution will depend on their affordability and available charging infrastructure.

 

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