Tooling around San Francisco in a convertible, taking in sights such as the Golden Gate Bridge, is a real treat. Doing it in an electric convertible car fits the city's compact dimensions and progressive, high-tech culture even better.
And the only car for this mission is the 2013 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive, mostly because it is the only electrically driven convertible on the market.
Smart brought a selection of its Fortwo Electric Drive vehicles to San Francisco for a press event, and I grabbed the Cabrio, in Rally Red. The Fortwo Cabrio is sort of a half-convertible. The cloth roof rolls back, bunching up at the rear of the car, but leaving the rear pillars and roof rails up. You can also remove the roof rails and toss them in back, which I did, to open up the cabin a little more.
And like the standard Smart Fortwo, the Fortwo Electric Drive is only a two-seater, with a tiny bit of cargo room in back. Smart points out that over 100 million people commute to work by themselves every day. In addition, 80 percent of these commuters drive less than 40 miles round-trip to work.
That means a huge potential market for the Fortwo Electric Drive, if we Americans can ever get over the idea that we need a commute vehicle with room for five and the ability to travel back and forth to work 10 times in a single day.
With its 17.6 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery, the Fortwo Electric Drive can go an EPA-rated 76 miles in the city and 59 miles on the highway, or a combined range of 68 miles. Given those numbers, I had no range anxiety for my drive around San Francisco. Knowing that, I was generous with the accelerator, and didn't sweat the driving efficiency rating noted on the instrument cluster display.
Brake and recharge
The drive controls in the Fortwo Electric Drive were dead simple, with a drive selector on the console, and accelerator and brake pedals. The positioning of the ignition, behind the shifter, threw me for a few minutes.
Being electric, the Fortwo Electric Drive requires no gear shifting. However, a Smart product specialist told me the car would be offered with optional steering wheel-mounted paddles, which will let drivers choose from four levels of brake regeneration. You can have brake regeneration completely off, so the car coasts freely when you lift from the accelerator, or switch down to successively heavier settings, which simultaneously slow the car and recharge the battery.
The model I drove lacked the paddles, having a moderate amount of brake regeneration programmed in. When I lifted off the accelerator, the car immediately began to slow. I timed it right a couple of times so that I didn't actually need to touch the brake pedal as I came to a stop at a traffic light.
For motive power, the 2013 Fortwo Electric Drive's electric motor powers the rear wheels, producing 47 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque. That motor shows a pretty big increase over the previous generation of the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive. Hitting 60 mph in 11.5 seconds, the car might find its performance niche racing skateboarders.
Driving around the city, my right leg ended up getting a minor workout, as the accelerator pedal didn't go down easily. That resistance worked like an eco coach, preventing me from casually engaging maximum, battery-draining acceleration.
Of course, hitting the city's maximum speed limits of 25 or 35 mph was easy. A number of times, I maxed the acceleration from a traffic light, so as to get ahead of traffic and make a necessary lane change. The Fortwo Electric Drive proved capable in that type of traffic maneuvering, as long as other cars at the line weren't piloted by Indy racer wannabes.
And with a length under 9 feet, I found plenty of gaps in traffic big enough to slip the Fortwo Electric in.
Nowhere on this drive were roads suitable for freeway speeds, so I didn't get to test the car's highway performance, but it's top speed is only 73 mph. Weighing around 2,000 pounds, the Fortwo Electric Drive is lighter than most other cars, so will likely experience some buffeting at speed, while its short wheelbase can make negotiating bumps in the road uncomfortable.
The brake pedal required as much effort as the accelerator, and here I definitely would have appreciated more grabby tuning. Hard braking may not be good for efficient driving, but sometimes it's very necessary.
Zipping around a few corners, I found the Fortwo Electric Drive felt very solid, with little sway. That may partly have to do with the suspension's minimal travel, but the car also benefits from a few hundred pounds of batteries buried in the chassis, lowering the center of gravity. It comes with electric power steering, but the boost level is fairly low, giving the wheel some heft.
One challenge unique to San Francisco are steep, steep hills. I tackled one in the Fortwo Electric Drive, beginning with a charge at the beginning of the ascent. As the car's nose pointed toward blue sky, I was happy the electric drivetrain was powerful enough to maintain speed and make it to the top.
For monitoring energy usage, Smart puts a couple of performance gauges on top of the dashboard. One shows the battery level while the other indicates when you are burning juice or the amount of braking regeneration. The instrument cluster is limited to a speedometer and a monochrome LCD showing remaining range and a few other helpful infobytes.
Smart also runs a complete telematics service for the Fortwo Electric Drive, complete with smartphone apps. Owners can remotely check the battery status and schedule charging, similar to telematics services for other electric cars on the market. Interestingly, Smart says it uses power line communication for its connected telematics features. That means it will get a data connection even when at the bottom level of a basement parking garage, but it doesn't allow for connected features when it isn't plugged in.
A J1772-compliant charging port sits on the right rear of the car, and is capable of giving the battery a 100 percent charge from empty in 6 hours, when using a 240-volt charging station. There is no fast charging available for the U.S. version of the car.
The flashy red model I drove also came equipped with the optional navigation system, a double-DIN head unit with a touch screen mounted in the dashboard. This head unit offers navigation, digital audio sources, and a Bluetooth phone system. I didn't get to dig in and properly evaluate its performance, but I noticed the navigation system was a little slow to keep up with the actual location of the car.
Although range and acceleration don't make it a standout among electric cars, the 2013 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive comes with one very compelling selling point. It is the cheapest new electric car you can get. Smart says the Coupe version will retail at $25,000, and the Cabriolet at $28,000, before government incentives.
But wait, there's more. Smart is also launching a new plan called Battery Assurance Plus, which guarantees the battery's capacity and performance for 10 years. The plan costs $80 per month, but Smart knocks $5,000 off the price of the car for buyers who choose it. That puts the cost of the Fortwo Electric Drive Coupe at only $20,000, or $23,000 for the Cabriolet, again before incentives, which can run close to $10,000.
Smart will also offer leasing plans for the car.
The Fortwo has always been a bit of niche vehicle in the U.S., primarily adopted by urban iconoclasts. The 2013 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive continues that niche appeal, but is an incredibly cheap way to get into a feasible electric car. As a commuter and an errand runner, the Fortwo Electric Drive can work well, and is an even better choice than its gasoline-powered counterpart, if you have a place to plug it in, as electricity to run it will cost approximately a tenth of running the gasoline version.
It is not, however, much of a multipurpose vehicle. You won't be piling the kids into it and taking a trip to Grandma's house for Sunday dinner. Nor will it hold the bounty of a good Costco or Ikea run.
As with all electric cars, the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is for an owner who falls into specific parameters, such as commute length. But those people who can't wait for Tesla to come out with a generally affordable electric might want to consider Smart as an interim solution, especially given the price.