MIAMI, Florida—Dr. Annette Winkler got off a plane in Miami after flying halfway around the world and with boundless energy delivered a hopeful message. It was the same day we learned Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States. For some, hope was in short supply.
Winkler is the boss of smart, a key part of Daimler’s strategy to transform its automotive business as the 21st century matures.
She was hopeful about the future prospect of the smart brand, about the smart car’s suitability for new types of car-sharing economies, and about its potential as a zero-emissions vehicle for increasingly crowded cities.
In and of itself, not so surprising. But it was the reason for her sunny outlook that was most uplifting. Young people, she said, including those young at heart, want to contribute to a better world, to contribute to a sustainable environment, and don’t accept pollution and smog any more.
Lucky for them, the all-new smart Electric Drive checks all three boxes.
This is actually the fourth all-electric Smart car. Since the first one in 2007, it’s been steadily improving, just like the battery technology that makes it possible.
The 2017 model is based on the latest smart platform, which looks about as good as we’ve seen any modern micro-car look, well, ever. Yes, you’ll likely have to spend more on nice wheels and nice paint, but that’s par for the course.
Otherwise, the smart Electric Drive is essentially indistinguishable from its gas-powered counterpart. A plug replaces the fuel filler.
The door is gargantuan, the entire side of the car. You step up to get in, over the battery, which sits roughly under the seats where the fuel tank would otherwise have been.
Once inside, it actually feels normal, spacious even. Headroom is excellent. It doesn’t feel like you’re sitting with your face pressed to the windscreen. The switchgear is basic – the regular smart starts at $17,300 – but it’s well-finished and nicely tactile. Like the little slider that clicks across to set the temperature, for example.
It’s only when you look behind you that you’re in for a shock. There’s nothing there. It’s as if someone chopped off the rest of the car behind the front seats. There’s a tiny cargo cubby good for daily items and not much else. Crucially though, the electric smart has exactly the same cargo and cabin space as the gas version. No comprise needed here.
Battery technology does not improve in big leaps and bounds these days, but rather in steady incremental progress. The battery in the fourth-gen smart ED – yes, Electric Drive makes for an unfortunate acronym – is 17.6 kWh, and about the size of a two-person table at a restaurant. Inside are 96 cells that can be repaired or replaced individually if needed.
Smart offers an eight-year or 100,000-kilometre guarantee on the battery. If its total capacity degrades below 70 percent of original within that time, smart will replace it.
Range anxiety? The electric smart only gets a little more range than the previous one, up from 145 to 160 kilometres per charge. It’s worth noting those are official figures from European NEDC testing. Official Canadian figures will probably be a little lower.
I secretly love 5.0-litre V8s and – even better – a screaming V12. [Really? ‘Secretly’? —Ed.] Oh, gimme the roar of internal combustion and a hellfire exhaust note any day. I know it’s terrible for the planet. Call it a very, very guilty pleasure, indulged on weekends mostly.
And so it was with great shock that I drove the gasoline smart, with its lawnmower-sized engine, and loved it. It was the most fun I’ve had driving any car around the crowded, congested city in which I live. Its secret is that it’s laid out like a Porsche 911, with engine in the trunk driving the rear wheels. It’s so easy to push the smart’s dinky tires to its limits, at perfectly legal speeds, you can treat it like a go-kart. It’s a riot.
The same is doubly true of the electric version. In fact, its handling is even better. The battery pack mounted low acts like ballast. It feels unshakably stable, and no matter how quickly you take a turn, it seems to want you to try to go faster. This little eco-machine puts the devil on your shoulder. All this from a car with 81 horsepower that does zero-to-100 km/h in a lardy 11.5 seconds. Huh.
When it comes to recharge it, you’ll really need to pay extra for smart’s wall-box charger. It can charge the car from empty to 80 percent in two-and-a-half hours. From a regular household outlet, that same task would take 13 hours. (No, it doesn’t support ultra-fast DC charging.)
Canadian pricing has yet to be announced, but in Germany the new Electric Drive is cheaper than the old one. In Canada the old one was priced at $26,990. So we can expect the new price to be similar.
In certain provinces, electric-vehicle incentives will bring that down significantly. In Ontario you’ll probably get about $8,500 back; in B.C., it’s $5,000, and in Quebec it’s $8,000. You’ll also get significant incentives if you lease the vehicle.
And, you know, you’ll never have to go to a gas station again.
If you’re looking for the best, most affordable city car you can buy right now, the smart fortwo Electric Drive is it—provided you can live with its compromises. True, it’s less compromised than ever, with more range and better style and handling. But it still only has two seats and 160 kilometers of range.
Alternatives? The BMW i3 with its bigger battery can do 200 kilometres, and is available with gasoline range-extender, and has room for five. But, it costs significantly more. There’s also the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Spark EV to consider.
Dr. Annette Winkler’s outlook for her brand and for the desires of young drivers is hopeful.
More cars aren’t the solution, but until another one can be found, the all-electric smart car is a wonderful stop-gap. The 2017 smart electric drive is the best smart ever.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.