Of all the cars in current production, the Smart Fortwo is perhaps the most obvious candidate for conversion to electric drive. Its upright construction allows an electric motor and batteries to be accommodated under the floor without eating into passenger or luggage space, while it is typically used for short urban journeys, which means that the main problem associated with today's battery technology, limited range, is much less likely to be a concern than it is with cars subject to a more varied pattern of use.
Compared with their petrol and diesel driven counterparts, electric cars also offer snappy acceleration from rest, but can run out of puff a bit at higher speeds, a profile better suited urban use than long runs. Finally, while the CO2 emission benefits of electric cars are disputed – the problem is shifted from the tailpipe to the power station, rather than eliminated altogether – the absence of exhaust emissions means local air quality still benefits from the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs), an advantage likely to be felt most keenly in the built-up areas that are the Smart's natural territory.
Given all that, it's rather frustrating that it's taking so long for a full production version of the Smart Fortwo Electric Drive to make it onto the market, but it appears that this goal is now in sight. Smart conducted extensive initial trials from 2007 with a battery-powered version of the Fortwo, although these were carried out with first generation versions of the car after the current second-generation model had already been introduced, and used sodium-nickel chloride batteries rather than the lithium-ion technology that is being adopted by the rest of the industry.
Now, though, there is an electric version of the second-generation car, with lithium-ion batteries, that has been in limited production since November last year and will be tested in 15 countries in a trial involving 1500 vehicles; the first UK participants have already had their cars for a few weeks.
I recently had the chance to drive this new electric Smart on a short route in Germany, and it appears to live up to its promise. Initial acceleration is lively, and the electric motor is smooth and quiet, while handling seems to be largely unaffected by any changes to the level or distribution of weight compared with the standard car, at least at urban speeds.
Another pleasant aspect of the Smart Electric Drive is that it does without the rather hesitant semi-automatic gearbox that is used in the petrols and diesels and instead delivers its power in a smooth, steady stream when required.
Some other EVs, such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Mini E, feel as if they have even sharper acceleration than the Smart, but if anything, those cars appear to have a surfeit of power, given the sorts of use to which they are likely to be put, and most people who have driven them tend to ask whether a little of that performance couldn't be traded for range instead, which would be more useful.
The interior of the second-generation Fortwo Electric Drive is very similar to that of the standard car, apart from a couple of dials that help the driver monitor battery use. The battery is charged via a socket that is accessed via what would be the fuel-filler flap on the diesel and petrol powered versions.
One optional feature that is likely excite plenty of interest is an "intelligent electric drive app" for the iPhone, which provides information on subjects such battery charge and range, and the location of nearby charging points. The app itself costs only a few quid but the full Smart Drive kit, which includes the bracket for connecting the iPhone to the Smart's is rather pricier.
The Fortwo Electric Drive feels like a finished product but won't go on general sale until 2012. Smart will have no difficulty convincing buyers that it works – and works well. A bigger challenge will be getting the financial sums to add up, both for the customers and the company; battery technology is expensive and that means EVs are expensive too.
Manufacturers and governments have been willing to subsidise the sector to some extent but the new coalition government in the UK is taking a more sceptical line than its predecessor, introducing an element of uncertainty as well. A dispute has also erupted in the trade concerning alternative financing models for EVs, in particular over the possibility of leasing batteries separately from the cars to which they are fitted.
I haven't the faintest idea what a Smart Fortwo Electric Drive will cost when it eventually goes on general sale in the UK and I suspect the company itself isn't much wiser.
The Smart Fortwo Electric Drive is probably, along with the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the most convincing EV adaptation of an existing production model. I suspect that it is no coincidence that the standard versions of these cars share a similar mechanical layout, with the engines mounted low down between the rear wheels, making it easier to slot in the electric technology in its place without eating into passenger and luggage space, unlike the badly compromised – in this respect, at least – Mini E, which loses its back seat completely during the EV conversion process.
But the technology is advancing rapidly and several new cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, designed as purpose-built EVs from the ground up, are on their way; Smart will need to be quick if it is going to stay ahead or even keep up
Smart Fortwo Electric Drive (second-generation model)
Price: N/A (trial vehicle, general availability from 2012)
Propulsion technology: electric motor powered by 16.5 kW h lithium-ion battery pack
Claimed range: 135km (approx. 84 miles) according to NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) standard
Power: 30Kw = 41 horsepower (PS)
Torque: 120 Newton metres
Acceleration: 0-60km/h (37mph) in 6.5 seconds.Reuse content