Smart Fortwo ED (Electric Drive); A month in and its great!

I’ve always loved the idea of driving an electric car. It just makes so much sense. It doesn’t burn gas or oil so you feel better driving it not to mention it is a lot less expensive. I’ve seen Who Killed the Electric Car and was angry at the end. I’ve seen Revenge of the Electric Car more than few times. I’ve even contemplated making my own after reading Make Magazine. I had concluded that electric cars were too expensive so I should focus on an electric motorcycle. Then I saw that Smart was making an EV. At first glance it sounded too good to be true. I built the model I wanted and the site said “Available as low as $12,000.” I assumed that sticker was for the gas version and the electric was going to be $35,000 and have a 20 mile range. Well I’m happy to report that I was wrong and a month ago now I purchased a Smart ForTwo ED (Electric Drive) and am writing to report on the results I’ve had thus far.

Before we get to far into it, let me give you a few stats:

3 Phase AC 75 HP (Max) 47 HP (Constant)

Battery Capacity:
18kWh (I pay $0.06/kWh after the first 100kWh so a full charge is $1.08 unless you factor conversion loss). I haven’t really been paying attention because there is a Nissan dealership with 3 leaf chargers near where I work. They pay for about 1 out of 2 of my charges. Honestly, using our electric heaters at home cost more than my car.

68 miles (Theoretical) 50 miles (Average range with average temperature in Maine at 1 degree C.) I’ve seen it as low as 42 miles and as high as 64 miles. I’ve noticed that the prediction for the range is incredibly accurate and trustworthy. I’m getting a 1:1 predicted to actual ratio even when I accelerate quickly or have the heat on. The range stays true to the prediction.

Acceleration & Power:
I’ve been very happy with the performance of the car over all. It has a quoted 0-60mph of 11.5 seconds but it feels snappy enough for me. Maybe because I’ve always driven older cars, this just feels more responsive because its new. Most people that ride with me are surprised by the pick up. It has a smooth acceleration curve from start because of its step-less automatic transmission. There is no shifting latency or jittering between gears. No one has ever tried to race me at a light but I notice that by the time I’m at 45 mph, I’m a km ahead of everyone else. There is a power percentage gage on the dash that maxes out at 75% when you floor it. It took me two days to realize that the pedal clicks to the floor for 100% power output. The motor winds up and you feel like your in a rocket. One con for the car is that to achieve highway speed of 65mph you have to keep the pedal at 80% down. The top speed is 83-85 mph which it will only do if you click it. This hasn’t been an issue for me since this is a daily commuter but at anything above 60 on the highway and you remember your in a Smart Car on the highway. It’s like looking down while you are at the top of a ladder.

This car feels super sturdy to drive around. It has a tight suspension and rigid steering system that I like a lot. We tried a Nissan Leaf for four days and that had a much smoother ride for longer trips but this Smart is mostly for zipping around town.

Lousy Weather:
So far, not so good at all. I have the standard tires that came with it. I think snow tires in climates that receive snow are a must. I’ve tried this in about 2cm of snow and the Smart was not happy. Even though it is much lower overall hours power than what you’re likely used to, 100% of the torque is available at 0mph. This makes it want to slip when starting. You really have to ‘dog-it’ even on flat ground. On even a modest incline with even lightly slick roads, you’re likely to encounter the spins. I’ve been able to work around this by avoiding paths that have steep turning grades with lights or stops at the top. I took a more gradual route and tried to time my approach for a green light so I wouldn’t need a complete stop. It is possible for my short commute of 4.5 miles in the city but between the traction and reduced range it is obvious that this car was not designed for Maine winters.

I haven’t really figured out the charging yet. I’ve started charging at 20% battery with a 220v feed and been quoted 5.5 hours until full charge, which then promptly dropped to 4.5 hours. I left the car on the charger before returning just two hours later and found the battery at full charge. I’ve also plugged in my car on 110v at 30%, charged for 9 hours and found it on 60%. (Update 04/13/2017: I discovered later there is a button on the home charger included with the car that increases the power from 110ac to 1.4kw) There is a charge and depart feature that I haven’t been using that is likely the culprit. From reading the manual, it is designed to charge your battery over night on low rates and set to complete charging at a specific time, say 30 minutes before you leave in the morning. At the depart time, it will kick on either the A/C or the defroster depending on the time of year. I think that this has been canceling my charging cycle. I will need to play around with it some more before the results are definitive. (Update: The charge and depart, the pre-climate control features, never worked correctly after several attempts)

The WebApp:
There is a very obscure web app intended to give you an update to your smart care while it charges. It is similar in function to the Nissan Leaf App. It looks like it offers great information like time until the charge is complete, where you parked your car, etc. The problem is that it requires your VIN number, a mysterious VVC (Vehicle Verification Code), and that your car be equipped with the Mobile Communications Module. The VIN is easy. The VVC was supposed to be supplied by the dealership but was not. The MCM is no where to be found. It is essentially a GSM signal plan for your car but I’ve not been able to determine if it is in every model, models by country, or part of a specific package. One would assume it would be in the Technology Package or the Electric Green Appearance Package but the MCM is not listed. If my car came with the MCM and I can track down the VVC than it should be pretty great. The other alternative is to buy some mysterious piece of hardware that interfaces the car through the power supply of your home to a DSL router that gives it an internet connection. In the manual, it is very ambiguous how you go about getting this hardware or who supplies it. There is also a sequence of settings that need to be adjusted in order to activate the initial connection. Its straight out of the Slot machine hack in oceans 13. You have to set the max amps for charging to 12, then to 8, then to 12, then to 8 and that initiates the encryption. Assuming you have the purchased hardware, and that you have a DSL line. You can see a demo of the app at UPDATE (12/15/13): My salesman says that the Smart rep will contact him on Monday with my VVC so I can activate the Vehicle Home Page and that I do not need the upgraded radio. (Update 04/13/2017: The dealership was able to talk to the rep and find this number shortly after the writing of this. I for the remainder of the two year lease was able to use the app with very few issues. The app often had updating issues but only during periods of high or low activity. For example if you parked the car for five days and then went on a ride that drained the battery, it may say your car was still full for 15 minutes until the app refreshed.)

Audio System:
During the initial inspection, I was extremely excited to see a hidden USB and audio port in the glove compartment of the base model. When you see USB port, you assume that an iPod can be plugged in because the iPod is of course, the only thing you would ever want to plug into a car audio usb port. This is not the case. After trying 2 iPod Nano’s, an iPhone 5S running iOS 6, and an iPhone 4 running iOS 6, I only received an error that the media could not be read. In retrospect, I should have ordered a model with bluetooth built in, the LED headlights, heated seats, interior light package, and cruise control but I preferred instant gratification on the day of purchase. As for the audio, for the first week I had placed an iPod Nano with a 30 pin for power and a 3.5mm male to male cable for audio and called it good. It became a pain to enter the glove compartment to turn it on and off so I just left it playing on shuffle 24/7. When I drove, it charged the iPod so my music was always playing. Later I found a device at Walmart for about $24 that was a small USB chargeable battery powered Bluetooth Dongle with a 3.5mm line out. This allowed me to ditch the iPod and connect via my iPhone 5S via bluetooth to the car. It works really well if I’m listening to music and then turn on the car but if I start the music in the car while it is already on, I have to manual connect on the phone to the car which is still pretty darn easy. (Update 04/13/2017: The bluetooth dongle died after the first winter due to the cold Maine nights. To much exposure to cold killed the small internal battery so an audio cable was used for most of my ownership).

This is the main reason why I bought this car. I’ve never been wealthy but I always promised myself that my first new car was going to be either a hybrid or ideally a full electric. I assumed that I wouldn’t have a new car for years until prices came down. This car is extremely affordable. The greatest thing about this car is that you rent the battery instead of buying it. The battery is rented at $84/mo for 10 years and the rental fee is transferred to future owners. That way if the battery fails in 5 years, two owners down the road, it is still covered. No one is caught holding the bill for a $25,000 battery. The company recycles the lithium and you get a new battery.  Additionally, because this car is electric, there is a $7,500 rebate that is applied at the start of the lease so it is instantly saved. That means my $25k car was only a $17.5 to lease. After two years of payments, I can then buy the car for just $13k. Which, lets face it, a 2 year old electric car for $13k is a steal so who wouldn’t do it? Until I heard that this car was made, every other electric car was either $35-$100k like the Nissan Leaf for $35k, BMW i3 for $39k, the Tesla Roadster for $100k, or the half-assed Chevy Volt for who gives a $hit? The price of this car just snuck right up on me. I was expecting the VW Up to beat Smart to market but that is looking more and more like the many 2008 vapor cars before it claiming high range, low price, and a 2011 launch date that came and went. (Update 04/13/2017: Due to the timing at the end of my lease and my wife’s car needs, and my changing work needs, we did not purchase the Smart. In retrospect, this was the best car I’ve ever owned. I am now in a one year in on a three year lease of a 2016 VW Golf and though I’ve always wanted to drive a Golf, it was bought for the range. I would have liked the eGolf if it had Chademo but the SAE stations it uses were too limited. I am really hoping that the Smart adds a Chademo or SAE fast charging solution because the infrastructure has been built up since my lease ended. Also, the book value on the car was $3k less than the lease buy out at the time even though I was under miles. You can now purchase a 2014/2015 Smart ED for under $6k from a dealer which is amazing and makes me want to buy a one out right.)

I have not purchased a drop of gasoline or a quart of oil in 30 days. Saying that out loud makes me feel like I’ve won some epic battle or that I’m sticking it to a man somewhere. If I had this car a year ago for my epic 1.5 hour 40 mile Boston commute that I plowed through 5 days a week, the gas savings would have made the car payment. The math isn’t as stellar now but I can say that I’m ahead of the game. My total refuel cost is worst case scenario $2 for every 60 miles I travel. That boils down to 30 miles per $1. Not 30 miles per gallon which right now is currently $3.55. Now consider that I’m not paying for every other charge and really I’m getting 60m/$1. My commute is 5 miles each way 5 days a week so my monthly fuel cost conservatively $5 per month. My old gas car was about $25 twice per month at 32 miles per gallon. That is a factor of 10 reduction.

Nay Sayers:
Now that you know I save $45 a month in gas, I know what you’re going to say. Why would you spend $220 a month to save $45 a month? Well, on paper that doesn’t make sense. When my wife returned her Nissan Leaf (long story for a future post) the dealer crunched the numbers and was proud to tell us that it would’ve taken 18 years of Leaf ownership to make up for the additional cost of the car with just the savings in gas. True as that may be, it does not factor in any hidden costs. It doesn’t factor in the satisfaction of never going to a gas station, never needing an oil change (that I was always 4,000 miles over due for) or even for the fact that I just simply needed a newer and more reliable car that wasn’t a 15 year old Chevy Prism with a busted horn, non functioning passenger door latch and a hood that wouldn’t pop open so I could check the oil that I always forgot to change. For me, the real victory is next summer when I get to cruise around town all day running errands for $1 when your stuck at the gas station paying $50 to fill up your tank at $4.95/gallon?!

All in all, this is the best car I’ve ever owned or driven. There is pure excitement every time you accelerate fast enough to hear the motor. One of my favorite rides is to drive past the airport at night and listen to the Tron Legacy sound track. When you’re in this car, you feel like you part of the future or inside of the monorail of Disney World. It is way more fun than any other car I’ve ever driven in and I’ve been in my fair share.






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