I was feeling good as a truck cab packed with construction workers were genuinely excited as I pulled along side them at a red light. One guy gave me a thumbs-up; another asked how much my ride retailed for. Then, two lights up the road, the reaction to my smart fortwo electric drive car was slightly more critical.
"Hey guys, look at that funny little car," a father shouted to his two small boys as he pointed at my tiny white and green convertible. I suspect smart cars get that a lot: A mix of wonder, excitement and ridicule. Dropping in an electric motor is likely to only increase all of those reactions.
Smart USA, a subsidiary of Penske Automotive Group, will roll out 250 EVs in the U.S. beginning in October. That's small potatoes compared to what the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf plan to produce later this year, but Smart is happy being niche.
"This is a car grounded in sustainability," said Jill Lajdziak, president of smart USA, referring to the gas-powered smart automobile. "The electric car just expands on that."
The smart fortwo electric drive has a 30 kW electric motor in the rear of the car and can accelerate as fast as its gas-powered cousin, or about 0 to 40 mph in 6.5 seconds.
The car holds a 16.5 kWh lithium-ion Tesla Motors battery, although Mark Langenbrinck, managing director for smart, said that cars slated for larger-scale consumer production in 2012 will have a different battery.
The car will have a range of about 82 miles on a full battery at average city speeds, or four to five hours. It can charge at a standard 110 volts, but like other electric vehicles, 220-volt charging is recommended. It takes 8 hours to get a full charge, but Langenbrinck said it could go from about 20 to 80 percent in about 2.5 hours at 220 volts.
The car will be released in five regions this year: Portland, OR; San Jose, CA; Orlando, Fla.; Indianapolis, IN. and the I-95 corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston. The car, which will only be available on lease for $599 per month for 48 months, will mostly go to corporations, while 20 percent will go to individuals, who can sign up on a first-come, first-serve basis on smart's web site.
And if you're one of those eco-trendy individuals (I'm looking at you, Leonardo DiCaprio), don't think you'll cash in on the $7,500 government tax credits. Because the car is leased, that discount has already been worked into the lease price, Langenbrinck said.
So, how did it drive? The automated manual transmission felt smooth around the streets of Brooklyn. Earlier models of the gas-powered transmission garnered some complaints of jerkiness between first and second gear, which engineers went back to correct -- and I didn't feel it at all.
It's the same size as the regular smart car so it's, well, small. It was zippy and fun on city streets, and if you were to get one of the 50 or so cars slated to go to consumers, you'd definitely be the quietest vehicle in traffic (so quiet that even with the radio on, you can still hear everyone's comments as they point at you). However, for those who want an electric vehicle to take out on the open road, be warned the smart fortwo EV tops out at about 100 kph, or 60 mph.
Smart, like other electric vehicle manufacturers, is still working through how to help customers manage the permitting process to get 220-volt charging in their garages. "Permitting is one of the most complicated, yet one of the most mundane issues," said Langenbrinck. The company is also one of the partners with Coloumb Technologies, so customers who live in select cities could get a free charging station thanks to a DOE grant.
If you're itching for a tiny electric car and you're not located in or near the first few cities where the smart fortwo EV will be offered, fear not; phase three volume production will begin in 2012 for the 2013 model year.