City smarts

BROOKLYN--Smart USA is bringing an electric version of the ForTwo mini car to the U.S., starting with a small trial this fall, followed by production manufacturing and sales in 2012. The ForTwo Electric Drive, just like the gasoline version that came to the U.S. two years ago, is a two-seater with a small amount of storage space in the back. The car is geared toward city commuting and aimed at a niche of people who want to make a statement with a small, energy-efficient car.

I got to take it for a spin this week on the streets of New York.

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Photo by: Smart USA / Caption by:

Highway speeds

The Smart ForTwo Electric Drive will have a range of 83 miles and a top speed of 65 miles per hour. With its pilot testing next fall, the company will lease the car for four years, with most of the minicars going to businesses. Because of its unique looks in the U.S., Smart USA expects that corporations will use the car to convey an image of environmental sustainability.

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Photo by: Smart USA / Caption by:

Smarts in a row

One of the main challenges to bringing an electric vehicle to city drivers is the charging infrastructure, as many apartment dwellers won't have a garage to plug the car into. Smart USA and Daimler, which designs and manufacturers the ForTwo, expect that parking garage owners and businesses will install charging stations. With a 220-volt service, the battery can charge from zero to 100 percent in about eight hours and from 20 percent to 80 percent charge in about three and a half hours. Leasing the cars to business owners does help address the infrastructure question since in many cases, they will have available space for daily charging.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Retro charge

The interior is equipped with these dials to tell the driver how much charge is remaining in the battery. The dial on the right indicates how much power is being drawn--the motor maxes out at 30 kilowatts, or about 40 horsepower. The battery is charged when the car is decelerating or the driver brakes, which is also indicated on the power meter.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Mini car comparison

This photo shows how small the ForTwo minicar compares in size to the green minivan behind it and bicycles in front. The two-seater is less than 9 feet long and about 5 feet wide and 5 feet high.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

Ample head room

Even though it is a minicar with just room for two passengers, the interior space does not feel cramped at all. Even people more than 6 feet tall report that there is enough head room and leg room. Cargo space, however, is minimal with about enough room to fit a suitcase or a few bags of groceries in the back.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

App for charging

Smart USA last week released an iPhone application that will have some features specific to the electric version of the ForTwo. People can see the battery state and calculate how much charging they will need to go a certain distance. There will also be a way to find available charge stations. The iPhone application itself lets people stream Internet radio stations and use maps for navigation.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:

EV parking

Because the Smart is small, it's easy to maneuver through city traffic and parking is a breeze. With relatively little space behind the driver's seat, it's easy to see back when parallel parking.

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Photo by: Smart USA / Caption by:

Inside an e-mini car

This graphic shows the internal components that make up the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive. It's the same car as the gasoline version but uses an electric powertrain. An electric motor replaces the gasoline engine and a 16.5 kilowatt-hour battery system, made by Tesla Motors, is in the mid-section of the car. The electric version, at about 1,100 pounds, is about 300 pounds heavier than the gasoline one.

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Photo by: Martin LaMonica/CNET / Caption by:
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