The Smart Car Electric Drive

Here at TONEAudio, we’ve been green from day one, eschewing chopping down trees for a consumer magazine, which has just never felt right to us—even when we lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., instead of tree-loving Portland, Ore. So, other than our massive pair of Pass Labs Xs300 amplifiers, we try to keep our carbon footprint small.

Most of the autos with premium sound systems that we review in these pages are anything but miserly on fuel (though the current Porsche 911 will hit 30 mpg at about 70 mph on the motorway, if you’re gingerly with the gas pedal.) And considering all the great luck we’ve had with battery-powered audio from Red Wine Audio, ASR and a few others, we figured why not try a battery-powered car?

Of course, the Tesla comes to mind, but with a “business lease” on the current Model S breaking the bank at around $1,000 per month and with Tesla’s long-term future remaining potentially murky, we chose a much simpler solution: the Electric Drive from Smart. For those of you who don’t know, Smart is a Mercedes-Benz product and its cars are distributed by Mercedes dealerships.

This is actually a full-blown car review, as the stereo system in the Smart either sucks (the “multimedia system” upgrade basically just adds a pair of door-mounted tweeters and a wimpy subwoofer) or really sucks (the standard system has only a pair of 5.75-inch speakers in the lower part of the door panels). However, considering that the car is battery powered, range is everything, so forgoing a high-powered audio system is actually a good thing—which is too bad, because the Electric Drive is really quiet inside. It would be the perfect place for a killer system. Maybe we can get Vinnie Rossi from Red Wine to do a signature Smart system with a couple of his really low-powered class-D amps. Stay tuned for that.

Charge Now

Having lived with the Electric Drive for a few months now, I’d like to reiterate that range really is everything. A “charge now” indicator comes up on the dashboard every time you shut off the Electric Drive, reminding you that the car can cover a very finite distance on a single charge. Smart claims that it has a range of 59 miles for strictly freeway driving, 76 miles of all city driving, or 68 combined. We seem to reach just about 70 miles in the car no matter what, with a few caveats.

Driving the car spiritedly but not maniacally still keeps the range close to 70 miles, but strong headwinds, constantly mashing the accelerator pedal to the floor (which is totally fun, due to the car’s instant torque) or using the air conditioning heavily will drop the range to about 58 miles. And this leads us to the only complaint with the Electric Drive: This little car that could would really be the little car that can if it could go 100 miles on a charge. Maybe the next generation will.
The Electric Drive comes with a 120-volt charger installed in the rear tailgate. This is great to get you started using the car, but it will take 16 hours to charge it from a 20 percent charge, which severely limits the car’s usefulness. What you want is a 240-volt charger to replace the sexy Smart charger, which will set you back $2,500. Amazon has a Bosch charger (which we featured in last month’s Style section) for $479; it will have you rocking in about four hours. Combine that with visiting your favorite stores—like IKEA, which feature EV chargers on site, some even at no cost—and you can really extend the range of your excursions.

Reality Doesn’t Bite

In the Electric Drive, day-to-day, moderate-distance hops couldn’t be more enjoyable.  The car is comfortable and way roomer than its diminutive size suggests. The passenger cabin feels very similar spatially to that of the Fiat Abarth but without the rear seat. The Electric Drive’s cargo space will hold about eight bags of groceries or a few large bags of dog food and, with the front passenger seat folded flat, it can easily accommodate a substantial pair of speakers or a large piece of furniture from IKEA.

The car’s most underrated specs are its 0-to-60 mph time and its top speed: 11.5 seconds and 74 mph, respectively, according to Smart. Our test vehicle easily sprints to 60 mph in just under 10 seconds and can hit 85 mph on level ground. And unlike your average econobox that wheezes heavily at 70 mph on the open road, the Electric Drive shoots from 70 to maximum speed with ease. Driving it like a rally car in downtown Portland is amazing; this four-wheeled midget will show its rear bumper to just about anything off the stop light to about 35 mph. It’s a ton of fun to holeshot punks in Subaru WRXs with a car that doesn’t even use gas.

Thanks to a short wheelbase and rear-wheel drive, the Electric Drive handles crisply. It is an absolute blast to drive and everyone who has had a chance to take it for a spin comes back with a huge grin on his or her face. Best of all, you can lease one from your Mercedes dealer for about $150 a month. (The car starts at $12,490 after U.S. federal tax credit.) Considering that all my cars average about 22 mpg on premium gas, driving the Electric Drive about 1,300 miles a month means I save about $250 a month on gas. It’s like having a free car!

I don’t know how long Mercedes will keep offering the Smart Electric Drive for this low of a price, but if you do a lot of short-trip driving and can get over the American point of view that you have to have a massive car to feel safe, the Smart Electric Drive just might be one of the most enjoyable automobiles you’ve ever driven.  -Jeff Dorgay