Thursday, August 1, 2013

Taking Smart's 2013 Fortwo Electric Drive for a San Francisco spin

IN DEPTH New leasing option may make this a very Smart choice
Show of hands: who out there has driven a Smart car?
Until yesterday, we hadn't either. In fact, we thought of them more as death traps than road-ready vehicles, and scoffed at their tiny frames trimming through traffic. "You'd be a fool to drive that tin can," we'd say to anyone who'd listen.
And yet when Smart, which brands its two-door urban transports with a little "s," invited the press to tour San Francisco in the 2013 Fortwo Electric Drive this week, we couldn't turn down a test drive. Lunch was promised too, but that's neither here nor there.
After more than an hour climbing hills and twisting 'round turns, we found that despite some flaws, we clicked with the car. It's great for city driving, and if you're willing to plug in, you could save bundles on gas. What's more, with a new leasing option Smart's making available starting today, the Fortwo Electric Drive may just be the best way to traverse metropolitan roadways.
The car
The horseless carriage we moshed through the City belongs to the third-generation of the Fortwo Electric Drive line. It's been out since May, and the zero-emission vehicle is available in either coupe or cabrio (convertible) body styles. We took a white car with a red cloth top out, if you were wondering.
The Fortwo Electric Drive's lithium-ion battery fits where the fuel-tank on a gas model would normally go, and a 33-pound electric motor is situated between the two rear wheels. It's a 74 horsepower, 55-kilowatt Daimler/Bosch joint venture, equivalent to a single-torque engine. Twenty to 30 percent charging time is around 3.5 hours, Smart said, as the company finds it's rare for drivers to return home with a battery that's 100 percent drained.
Smart went to obvious lengths to make sure the third-gen Fortwo Electric Drive was an improvement over the second. According to the car maker, top speed jumped from 62 mph to 78 mph. It now takes 11.5 seconds to go 0-60, instead of a dangerously long 26.7 seconds for gen two.
The 2013 car's average range is 68 miles, with city driving only a mile higher than the previous version (76 vs 75). Level 2 (240V) charging allows the 2013 to last for about 6 hours on a 100 percent charged vehicle, however the 2012 version can run for about 8 hours.
We drained close to 30 percent of the battery during our approx. 1.5-hour drive, which took us from Mission St. to Golden Gate Park to Crissy Field by way of the Presidio. A well-placed gauge kept up aware of our power, with the needle conspicuously dropping every time we restarted.
The tech
The car isn't as advanced as the concept Cadillac we saw at CTIA 2013, but it has its techie touches.
Chief among them is the ability for the Fortwo Electric Drive to communicate though its power lines to the Smart car homepage, a hub for information on usage patterns, power draw and vehicle performance. Drivers can see the status of their car charge, the interior temperature and rumble system pre-conditioning to life.
Smart even claims power line communication can be used for auto pay.
The homepage also provides range info in the form of a map with a "range potato," or a highlighted circle, to tell you how far your battery will take you, plus a range calculator.
The drive
Setting our fear of imminent death aside, we stepped into the 2013 Fortwo Electric Drive to find a surprisingly spacious interior. It's not a Suburban, but we caught ourselves thinking, "I was in something that small??" whenever we exited the vehicle.
Part of the space solution is that Smart fixed the passenger seat six-inches behind the driver's seat. There was ample leg room and the car felt almost expansive with the top down. Things changed when we brought the roof back up (which you can do by holding a centrally located button while traveling at any speed, by the way). Head real estate was more limited, but we only bumped our crowns once.
Visibility was remarkably good. In other compact cars, we often feel like we're looking out of the port hole on a ship, but there were near perfect viewing angles throughout the Electric Drive.
There's no real trunk to the vehicle, just a hatch that opens up to a flat, 7.8 cubic foot space where you could probably put one large suitcase on its side. Our laptop bag and camera bag fit fine, however it only took one quick stop to send our laptop bag into the space behind our seat. Perhaps it should have been there in the first place.
For a car that has nothing more than the standard automatic controls and a steering wheel, it drove incredibly well. We pulled maneuvers we'd never dream of in our Subaru hatchback, cutting through traffic to make an almost-missed turn with an almost effortless ease.
Acceleration was top notch too, and even when going at higher speeds the car never felt rickety or cobbled together as some smaller sized cars can. Hitting cracks and divots in California's notoriously crumbled roads wasn't jarring, either.
It sank into turns, and hugged the curves of Lombard Street with an iron grip.
A bit of anxiety came over us whenever we came to a stop sign or had to make a left turn through traffic as we imaged who would win - us or the minivan.
Clearly aware of safety concerns, the Smart team spent plenty of time talking about the Fortwo's eight air bags and tridion safety cell, which was described as similar to a roll-cage in a race car.
We brought the perception of un-safeness up to Webster, and he told us that safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association are due in a few weeks, but that the company is "very proud" of the preliminary numbers.
There were some downsides to our drive. Braking was unpleasant; the effort had a sticky quality to it. Sudden stops, as we said before, sent our back-area cargo flying, making us hesitant to test out quick decelerations. At times, it felt like we really had to press to make the brake go down.
The brakes always worked, but you want to be 100 percent sure that your car is going to stop when you have tourists on Segways flying in front of you.
The front slope of the Electric Drive led to some weird spatial perception, especially in parking, but we're sure we could get used to judging distances more accurately with more practice.
The deal
As nice as our mid-morning tour of San Francisco was, money was the real reason Smart invited us to eat sandwiches and tool around in its cars. Starting today, the company is offering the 2013 Fortwo Electric Drive for a newly reduced leasing price of $139/month, down from $199/month, for 36 months. That price is tallied after a $1,999 down payment and includes an $80/month battery rental through the battery assurance program.
The program gives drivers a 10-year warranty on their juicers and covers both defects and capacity, though it's not mandatory.
The lease is only available where the 2013 Fortwo Electric Drive is sold, meaning only zero emission states. Those include California, Oregon, New York and New Jersey.
If you'd rather purchase the car out right, Smart will charge you an industry-low $25,000 after a $2,000 rebate on the coupe model. The convertible will roll in at $28,000. Government tax credits, which can run up to $7,500, can also bring down the price.
Bottom line: If you're willing to front the dough, coordinate charging and want a car primed for driving in an urban environment, the Fortwo Electric Drive is worth exploring.
If you're satisfied with the status quo, you still might want to take it for a test drive. Fun isn't a quality the Fortwo is missing.