Travel throughout European cities and you’ll find smart (with a small s) cars of all styles and ages. They’re in variety of colors and trims, ranging from base models to ones with custom factory paints and Brabus accessories. They’re frequently parked sideways on crowded streets where conventional cars are parallel parking, after their drivers finally find a spot large enough.
Those wondering why some Europeans are willing to spend a lot of money on tiny cars, wonder no more. Some want all the luxuries but their car choices are limited to what will physically fit down their thousand year old street. This is one of the many reasons why the smart and other small vehicles, even the fully loaded and accessorized, are so much more popular there.
In America, the Smart (I’ll use proper-ish grammar from now on) never achieved much success. They were first sold by Penske as gray-market import cars, then taken over by Mercedes-Benz in 2011. Mercedes must have seen market potential in these vehicles as they continue to import them. The current, third, generation Smart was introduced in 2016. But now, for 2018, Smart made a drastic change to their American market vehicles. The two models completely ditched their conventional engines for electric motors.
Is going all-electric the way to finally reach American-market success for Smart?
Powertrain change aside, the Smart remains what it has always been in America. It is available as a coupe and a cabrio. It has dent-resistant body panels. These body panels are also scratch resistant as they’re somehow painted all the way through. And when you get tired of those colors, those fully painted body panels can be replaced with different colored ones, but that might be costly.
The two Smart occupants will find a surprisingly good amount of space inside. Like in many roadsters, reclining isn’t an option, but there is enough headroom for those of us over six feet tall. It feels kind of like a coach seat on a plane – it is fine when you’re first seated and on your way but it will start to feel tight in a short amount of time.
The thing is, this electric Smart wasn’t designed for long distance driving. Its maximum range is 70 miles but with battery degradation and some real world conditions thrown in, the company says that a 58 mile range is more realistic. That’s not much but it’s plenty from the design perspective of the Smart ForTwo. The ideal Smart buyer would use it for his or her daily commute, which is typically less than 30 miles per day. Over 76% of commuters drive alone, so space isn’t an issue most of the time. The Smart would, of course, be the second vehicle in the family.
Translated into terms we are all familiar with, the motor puts out 80-horsepower and 180-lb-ft of torque almost instantly. This isn’t much considering the 2300-pound dry weight but it’s enough to be jumpy off the line and keep up with traffic. It will take 17-hours to charge the Smart’s battery from zero to 80% on a level-one 120v charger. But it takes only three hours from zero to 100% on a level-two 240v charger.
It will cost you $23,900 for the coupe and $28,900 cabrio Smart Fortwo. That is before options and any tax credits. That also does not include a level-two home charger and its installation, but like every EV the Smart does come with a level-one 120v charger. It is the least expensive EV on the market but it is also the smallest, the only one that seats just two, and has the shortest driving range.
Mercedes is taking a slight gamble with the all-electric Smart lineup. The environment here is different than in Europe. Ease of parking remains the ForTwo’s biggest asset. But the city dwellers who would benefit the most from it have limited access to charging stations while parked in those tight spots. Yes, there are designated charging spots in every city but those are big enough to allow parking of just about any size EV. How many buyers with easy access to charging have a need for such a small EV? Mercedes hopes that it’s more than the amount of people who bought the gasoline version.
[Disclaimer: Mercedes (and Smart) held a local media event where they showed a PowerPoint presentation over dinner and allowed for quick drives of their new EVs. All images except the four interior detail pictures were supplied by Mercedes]