Its very easy to sit back and critique design from afar but it is quite another experience to actually go out and use ‘design’ in the real world and appreciate its complexities and emotional impact. This is why we have decided at GCD to test the cars we write about, especially now since the experience of driving green cars is changing the way we live cars. What we’re finding is that it is fun to drive again, that despite traffic and congestion, new technologies, in this case electrical technologies, are giving the joy of driving back to drivers.
A testament to this was definitely the Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 test drive, the first in this series. It ripped of years of jaded driving experiences from yours truly and rekindled my love of cars. In following the trail of this new technology we found out that Tesla supplies other carmakers with their electric drive know-how and that some of that was sitting in the back of the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive!
When we received the car for testing last week this is what it had to offer on paper:
- Drivers can achieve the equivalent of around 275 mpg and save 80% in fuel costs when compared to a petrol-powered Smart
- One car can save the planet from 2.6 tonnes of CO2 tailpipe emissions per year if driven on a typical 10,000 miles a year cycle- It can accelerate to 30mph in 5.8 seconds, like the petrol-powered Smart ForTwo
- It has an electronically limited top speed of 62mph and can cover up to 84 miles between charges
- The Smart Fortwo Electric Drive’s lithium-ion battery was developed by Tesla Motors, has an electrical energy of 16.5 kWh and can be charged by any fused 110-220 Volt socket
- A three-hour charge is enough for the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive to cover up to 25mph – the average daily distance covered by urban drivers. It takes just eight hours to charge the battery from fully flat to fully charged
This second generation, 2009, ED (electric drive) is the same in terms of design as the existing petrol version Smart. The latest petrol model, the Smart Fortwo Lightshine with 54bhp, 0.8-litre, three-cylinder CDI engine, CO2 emissions of 86g/km, claims to be the cleanest combustion-engined car to date anywhere in the world. The ED version started trials back in 2007 and then again in 2009. A trial of 100 units, funded by the Government's Technology Strategy Board (TSB), were recently distributed for testing in London and West Midlands in the UK in June last year. Next year, in 2012, Smart will be leasing the cars to the general public.
Tech stuff under our belt we set out to test the car. The Smart Fortwo Electric Drive was no surprise in terms of package, two seats, dashboard, and a bit of space in the back for ‘stuff’. The last time I drove a Smart Fortwo was in Milan. They go crazy for them there, and its no wonder. The petite architecture of the vehicle allows for parking almost anywhere in space-restricted cities such as Milan and even London for that matter. It is nippy on acceleration so you can get away from the lights and cruises very comfortably at 30 mph.
The BEST part of all is a total and absolute silence!
It still surprises me every time I drive an electric car how quiet driving could be. We are definitely focused on atmospheric pollution here at GCD but having studied the debilitating effects of noise pollution I have to say that a city with less noise would benefit all! The absence of noise in the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is more noticeable than the Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 because it sits higher off the ground and has more noise absorbing materials and suspension. This isolation from the hubbub of the streets and the wide windscreen and large door windows makes for the perfect green city bubble.
In line with Mercedes quality build the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is perfectly manufactured with the highest quality materials. Although there is a lot of open debate about the benefits of electric cars vis a vis the real lifetime emissions of electric energy vs. petrol (we are researching this avidly!) Mercedes is committed to recycling their batteries at the end of life estimated at around 10 years. Add to this the fact that most of the car itself is recyclable, up to 90% then this product seems smarter and smarter at every turn.
This car is ‘huggable’; its mini size distances it car proportion to being more of a product, something that you can hold in your hands and use. There is an air of friendliness about the car accentuated by the uplifted eyes (headlights) and broad smile (grill) and two-toned colour effect. Our test car was white and green to celebrate its electric heritage but the premise of Smart cars is that one can customise each one to your heart’s content. Most recently at the Detroit Auto Show 2011 Smart showcased its Smart Personal Sounds Concept Car where the user can add personalised sounds to the windwipers, handbrake, or even to opening the door. These sounds can be created or downloaded much like today’s ring tones. During our test alone we encountered 2 instances where pedestrians were not aware of us because the car makes no sound …so perhaps a proximity alerting sound is in order.
Only 3% of consumers think that electric cars look great and only 20% agree that electric cars are “fun”
Smart commissioned The Future Foundation to investigate how consumers in the UK view electric cars. Disappointingly only 3% think electric cars look great and 20% think that they are ‘fun’. The latter I am not so worried about but if I were the design chief at Mercedes, or any car company, I would be worried about the other 97%. The Smart Fortwo has not changed dramatically since its concept debut in 1994. It has been improved most notably inside. Mercedes have not seized the opportunity here to design a product that conveys ‘electric drive’ visually instead of simply using stickers. Could that message of ‘fun’ not have been heralded by a more thought and emotive provoking design? If the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG E (electric) Cell is anything to go by I think Smart is in good hands for a cooler future.
The wide door openings makes it very easy to access the interior of this car. The layout is well though out and has just enough equipment to satisfy: full sat-nav capability, Bluetooth®, iPod/USB connectivity, electric windows and a radio/CD player activated via a user-friendly touch-screen display. We tested a 6 foot 4 inches driver and we can definitely say that he didn’t fit, but it can fit two adults up to 6 foot comfortably. The storage is great and well designed. A pocket on the dash to the right of the steering wheel for keys, phone, gum is very handy and generous, while a glove compartment with charger points for an iPpod and USB connector is trendy. Under the centre display is plenty of space for CDs, an ashtray and lighter port stacked over a massive adjustable cup holder, just one.
That's all standard, what stands out and what you keep your eyes on the most are your charge monitors. The two small round rotating monitors tell you how much charge you have left in percentage on the left and how much energy you are using or creating by regenerative braking to the right. The IP panel tells you your speed and energy performance in kW. These are all displayed clearly and highlighted with green casings. Behind the tall seats there is a mesh holdall bag and then in the back a small but very practical boot space. You can easily run around and do errands in this mini city-car. The design gives you maximum utility with the smallest footprint. Under the skin is Smart’s legendary Tridion Safety Cell, which is an NCAP tested and approved crumple structure that alongside ESP®, ABS, multiple airbags, and seat belt pre-tensioners made me feel quite safe indeed.
The newest sensation this car adds to your life is a feeling that you are doing something good in a considerable degree of style. There is a perceived intelligent luxury about the Smart, enhanced by the fact that the one I was driving was electric…and everyone new (because it was blazoned on the doors!). I parked everywhere in central London for free, I didn’t have to worry about the Congestion Charge, and I didn’t even fret about the recharging. I drove the car for 5 days without compromises, in fact with more freedom, and still had about 30% charge left. If I would have run out I do not know what I could have done as I live in a building with no outlets nearby. It would be imperative to own an EDF charging cable in town, but that is a minor adjustment that can easily fit it to a once a week event. Here is hoping Boris Johnson will keep EV’s road tax free, congestion charge free, and fingers crossed the £5,000 pounds incentives are still around next year when they go on sale to you and me.
Check out the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive Gallery