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Smart Electric Drive Passion Coupe first drive

CNET Car Tech spends time with the all-electric Smart coupe, which goes on sale next year.

2011 Smart Electric Drive Passion Coupe
Smart refitted the coupe with an electric drive, replacing the lower rear-mounted engine and gas tank with a 16.5 kWh lithium ion battery pack and 41 horsepower electric motor. Back to review.
Josh Miller/CNET
2011 Smart Electric Drive Passion Coupe
Smart converted its standard coupe to an electric drive system, and will start selling the car in 2012. Josh Miller/CNET

The Smart ForTwo seems like an excellent platform for an electric car. Small and lightweight are all virtues for current battery technology, but the Smart just might be too small. Smart fitted the 2011 Electric Drive Passion Coupe with an electric motor and lithium ion battery pack to test the proposition.

The resulting 63 mile-range in EPA testing and about 60 mph top speed falls short of larger competitors such as the Nissan Leaf. Even compared with a gasoline-powered Smart ForTwo, which can hit comfortable freeway speeds and achieve high fuel economy, the Smart Electric Drive has a hard time justifying itself.

Smart is currently leasing its Electric Drive coupes in a test program, but plans on selling these green electric cars starting in early 2012. The company loaned one to CNET for evaluation.

Build or refit?
When automakers decide to make an electric car, they have a choice of building something from the ground up, such as the Nissan Leaf, or adapting an existing platform, such as the Ford Focus Electric. Smart chose the latter course, putting a 41-horsepower motor and 16.5 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack underneath the cargo area, where the gas engine would normally go.

Outside and inside, the Smart Electric Drive differs little from its gasoline-powered sibling. Even the plug-in port is in the same spot as the gas filler port. The instrument cluster is similar, with one big speedometer and an LCD panel. But two pod gauges on the Smart Electric Drive's dashboard indicate remaining battery charge and power draw on the battery.

Smart Electric Drive
The Smart Electric Drive uses a standard J1772 charging plug. Josh Miller/CNET

Missing, and an apparent oversight from Smart, is an indication of remaining range. Certainly the battery charge gauge offers some clue, but there is nothing showing how many miles the car can travel. This data is crucial in a car with limited range and few places to recharge the battery. It is possible that Smart will add range information by the time it offers the car for sale.

Smart managed to keep the battery pack small, so it does not impinge on the car's cargo space at all. The two seats offer the same format as in the gasoline version, with an upright position that is easy to access and offers good all-around visibility.

Turning the key causes the same sort of silent light show as in other electric cars and hybrids. But unlike most other cars, putting the shifter in Drive has no obvious effect--the Smart Electric Drive just sits there. There is no creep built into the drive programming, so you have to push the accelerator to make it move. That is the first note of non-typical drive performance in the Smart Electric Drive.

Similar to how the Tesla Roadster operates, taking your foot off the brake causes the Smart Electric Drive to slow rapidly as its regeneration system kicks in. Pushing the brake pedal causes additional regeneration, observable from how the power flow gauge dips further into the green. Like its gasoline-powered sibling, the Smart Electric Drive gets disc brakes up front and drums on the rear wheels.

Smooth acceleration
As the Smart Electric Drive only needs a single reduction gear, it doesn't suffer from the horrible transmission issues of the gasoline-powered Smart ForTwo. Typical for an electric car, acceleration is smooth and steady, taking 6.5 seconds to get to 37 mph, according to Smart.

Smart Electric Drive
The cargo area is not affected by the battery pack, as in some hybrids and electric cars. Josh Miller/CNET

The lithium ion battery pack weighs more than 300 pounds, but this doesn't represent a net gain for the car, as the Smart Electric Drive sheds its gas tank and engine. But the Smart Electric Drive is noticeably heavier than the gasoline version, which weighs in at 1,958 pounds. Although that weight negatively affects acceleration and range, it helps stability. Still no sports car, the Smart Electric Drive feels steadier than the standard Smart ForTwo.

The ride quality remains rough, with the little Smart suffering from its short wheelbase, small tires, and compact suspension gear. Pothole jolts come in quick succession, and the car transmits every uneven surface to the cabin.

In the city, the Smart Electric Drive works well, with the same easy parking as the gasoline version. Beyond the smooth acceleration and the car's EPA rating of 87 mpg equivalent, it offers little advantage over the gasoline-powered Smart. The Smart Electric Drive also seems to come standard with power steering, unlike its sibling, where power assist is an option.

Of course, being an electric car, owners will need a place to plug in the Smart Electric Drive, which can be tough to find in a city. Smart says the battery will charge in less than eight hours off of a 220-volt outlet, so expect substantially longer on a standard 110-volt source.

Smart Electric Drive
Two gauges on the dashboard show battery charge state and power use. Josh Miller/CNET

The Smart Electric Drive does not feel particularly suitable for the freeway. Acceleration to freeway speeds is slow, and although Smart says it has a top speed of 60 mph, hill climbing will reduce that. While driving up a gradual incline, the car barely made it past 50 mph. Expect to live in the slow lane if you dare freeway travel.

Cabin electronics are the same as in the standard Smart ForTwo, centered on an AM/FM head unit with no CD player. There is a USB port in the glovebox that reads MP3s off of thumbdrives. But it will not work with an iPod. The audio system consists of two speakers, essentially a large boombox.

Smart offers a number of options for the car, including a Bluetooth phone system and in-dash navigation. The best way to option up a Smart car, though, is to get the smartphone integration kit, along with Smart's car app. This app includes most standard cabin tech features, including navigation.

The real nail in the Smart Electric Drive coffin will probably be its price. Although not on sale yet, the expected price is around $45k, well above the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi's upcoming i car. The Smart Electric Drive's easy parking is not enough to justify the price versus the lack of seats, range, and freeway usability.