Daimler’s smart car seems like a pretty brilliant idea, on paper at least. With a tiny footprint they’re easier to park than a shopping cart, especially since they’re not hobbled with bent frames or defective casters like most grocery buggies seem to be.
|1. The 2013 smart electric drive is powered by a 76-horsepower electric motor that puts out 96 lb-ft of torque.
2. The electric motor weighs just 33 pounds and is powered by a 17.6 kWh lithium-ion battery that was designed, developed and engineered by Daimler.
3. Fuel economy for the smart electric clocks in at 107 miles-per-gallon equivalent.
4. With a fully charged battery the car has an expected range of 76 miles in city driving and 59 on the highway.
5. Daimler’s Battery Assurance Plus program protects the smart electric drive’s pack with some of the best coverage in the automotive business.
The smart’s diminutive dimensions make it perfect for congested urban environments, as does its fuel consumption. They deliver a combined efficiency score of 36 miles per gallon. Beyond these virtues drivers can modify the vehicle’s coachwork with special wraps and custom decals; they can even swap out its body panels. Want red doors with a yellow hood and one purple rear fender? No problem…
Despite these advantages smart is a car everyone loves to hate. Its goofy styling and unusual handling characteristics are chiefly to blame. But these liabilities pale in comparison to the two-door’s most loathsome feature, its automated manual transmission.
If a train wreck and a dumpster fire had a baby this gearbox would be the result. On the International Scale of Awfulness and Depression (I-SAD) it falls somewhere between genocide and a mass extinction; it’s that terrible, with sluggish, whiplash-inducing shifts and poor responsiveness. It ruins the already questionable smart experience and is more disappointing than getting a thesaurus for your 6th birthday.
But it’s not all bad. There is one model that delivers a pleasant – and daresay fun – driving experience. How’s this possible given the avalanche of criticism in the preceding paragraphs? Well, all the company had to do was scrap the car’s entire drivetrain. Easy, right?
I’ll be frank (with a lowercase “f” because my name is actually Craig): The smart electric drive delivers an on-road experience that’s orders of magnitude better than the gasoline-powered version of the car. This shocking revelation comes courtesy of an amped-up drivetrain.
Gone is the conventional smart’s 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine, as is its breathless and buzzing 70 horsepower. It goes without saying the shameful five-speed transmission has been given the heave-ho as well.
An electric motor that weighs just 33 pounds and a single-ratio gearbox take their places. Peak horsepower is 74 while maximum torque is 96 lb-ft.
Supplying a steady stream of electrons is an advanced lithium-ion battery that was designed, developed and engineered by Daimler. Keeping the car’s center of gravity as low as possible the pack is mounted under the smart’s floor. As far as capacity is concerned, it clocks in at 17.6 kWh.
For a little perspective the Nissan Leaf features a lithium-ion battery with a capacity of 24 kWh, while the Ford Focus Electric’s pack clocks in at 23. These cars offer a nice power boost compared the smart but they’re also larger and heavier, justifying the extra capacity and cost.
When it comes to range the smart electric drive has enough juice to travel an advertised 76 miles in city driving or up to 59 on the highway. As for “fuel economy,” it delivers a combined score of 107 MPGe, which stands for “miles-per-gallon equivalent” since electricity can’t be measured like gasoline. Wouldn’t it be great if you could pick up a bucket of electrons and just pour them into the battery?
This electric combo is a one-two punch that’s so superior to the gasoline powertrain it bludgeons the internal-combustion setup to death with its bare fists. There’s literally no contest between these two options, the electric wins by not just a mile, but a marathon.
Best of all with a zero to 60 run of around 11.5 seconds the battery-powered smart is faster than the internal-combustion version, which takes 12.7 seconds to achieve the same velocity. The ED’s top speed is 78 miles an hour.
Even though it takes more than 11 seconds to reach that “mile-a-minute” sweet spot, the smart electric feel considerably quicker than that thanks to abundant low-end torque. Nail the accelerator and it leaps ahead with impressive verve, literally rearing back in the process. The oomph tapers off at higher speeds but it still pulls pretty well. Overall I’m tempted to drop the “f” bomb to describe it… fun.
The smart electric drive is easy to maneuver – it’s great around town – with steering that’s somewhat heavy and slightly nervous feeling, traits that seem to accentuate its tiny dimensions. An awkward driving position doesn’t help, though; the tiller is too low and the seats too high making it feel like the steering wheel is around your knees.
The ride is surprisingly stiff and quite bumpy, most likely because of the car’s truncated wheelbase. It’s not brutally harsh but you notice just about every imperfection in the road surface. Of course at slower speeds around town this isn’t as big of an issue, which is where the car is really designed to be used.
DIFFERENT DRIVETRAIN, SAME LIABILITIES
Engineers vastly enhanced the smart’s driving experience thanks to the extermination of its gasoline powertrain. But as improved as the vehicle is, there are a few liabilities that still carry over to the electric drive model and they center on the interior.
The car’s cockpit is still an unusual place, like something from Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock kids show. The dashboard is covered in a coarse-feeling fabric that looks like it could have been ripped off a polyester leisure suit from the 1970s.
Additionally the climate controls are very odd; they look cheap and feel cheaper, like they were sourced from a plastic bubble dispensed from a vending machine.
It’s the same story with the turn-signal and windshield-wiper stalks. They’re extremely brittle; you’d better not use the directional indicator too vigorously or the lever may snap like the stem of a wine glass.
PRICING STRATEGY: MORE CONFUSING THAN U.S. TAX CODE
If you thought America’s tax code was complex and intimidating wait until you see how Daimler is pricing the smart ED.
In a way the company is actually encouraging customers NOT to buy the little runabout. Sound crazy? Read on.
Instead of outright purchases they’re kind of pushing folks to opt for three-year leases. With $1,999 down you’ll pay just $139 per month for 15,000 annual miles. Something called “Battery Assurance Plus,” BAP for short is $80 but that cost is included in the $139 price. Confused? It gets worse.
With BAP onboard customers are essentially renting the car’s lithium-ion pack from Daimler. They get free battery checkups and maintenance every year (or every 12,500 miles) plus a 10-year replacement guarantee.
Taking things a step beyond what other automakers do, smart covers the battery for more than just manufacturing defects. Their warranty also includes charge capacity. As years and miles accrue and the electric drive’s pack starts to suffer from reduced capacity they’ll replace it for free (a 46 Ah capacity is guaranteed for a full decade). Additionally Battery Assurance Plus is fully transferrable and valid for unlimited miles.
Of course drivers can always purchase a smart electric outright, but the car costs some $25,750 including destination and delivery fees ($28,750 for the convertible). Easing the sting, this figure excludes any state, federal or company discounts you might qualify for.
You can also lease a smart ED without BAP, but that costs significantly more than $139. Really, the battery protection-plan is a no brainer, especially when the pack itself costs more than 22 grand!
The standard smart car is one of the most detestable vehicles ever produced, with a diabolical transmission and deeply flawed driving experience. But throw the internal-combustion powertrain out the window and replace it with a torque-rich motor and things change drastically.
The Electric Drive model transforms an infuriating vehicle into something that’s at least worth considering, and that is a monumental improvement. This smart isn’t for everyone, cattle ranchers and construction workers need not apply. But folks that live in densely populated urban areas and only commute short distances with little cargo could be served quite well by the smart ED and its bullet-proof battery protection plan.