I am sitting in the passenger seat alongside the CEO of Smart Automobile as she gleefully spins circles on an empty street in Miami’s artsy Wynwood neighborhood.
“The turning circle is extremely functional but also extremely fun,” Dr. Annette Winkler told me as we orbited the car’s improbably tiny 22.8-foot turning radius.
We started our drive behind the wheel of Smart’s new battery-powered minicar earlier that day in South Beach, where cars serve as vehicles for attention. Getting noticed was not my prerogative while palling around in the comically small bright-blue-and-white mini car, but soon enough, I didn’t mind the stares.
The Smart drove so smoothly and felt so spacious with its panoramic sunroof that I started to wonder, who wouldn’twant a small, battery-powered car that fits two people and not much else? Then I saw a valet wiggle two of them into a single parking space, and I was sold.
“We think that more and more people will accept electric drive, and even demand it, because they’ll no longer accept pollution and smog in big cities,” Winkler said. “The electric cars are becoming more attractive, emotional, and fun to drive.”
The small car comes with a mouthful of a name: the Smart fortwo coupe electric drive. It will launch in the U.S. next spring, with the cabrio version – the only battery-powered convertible on the market – arriving in time for summer.
The battery ekes out close to 80 miles on a charge, an improvement over its predecessor, and replenishes in about 2.5 hours, half the time required by the outgoing version. Geared toward people who drive fewer than 50 miles a day or families who already have a couple of cars in the garage, the 80-horsepower Smart electric drive hits top speeds of 81 mph and can reach 0 to 60 in just under 12 seconds.
If there’s a major drawback to the small car, it’s the relatively outsized price tag that’s likely to accompany it. Smart, owned by Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler AG, is gunning for the premium niche. The new electric version comes with standard amenities usually missing from a small car – power windows, power steering, cruise control, Bluetooth – but it will cost you. The company hasn’t announced pricing, but it’s expected to be in line with the outgoing model, which starts north of $25,000, before incentives.
That means that, unlike larger electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model X and Jaguar I-PACE concept, the smart electric drive will fight on two fronts: cheaper battery-powered cars that fit twice as many people and a stable of stalwart commuter cars that run on cheap gas. The forthcoming five-passenger Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3 sedans, for instance, can travel more than three times as far as Smart’s electric vehicle on a fully charged battery for roughly the same price.
“If an electric car is only competing on affordability, there’s a lot of competitors,” said Devin Lindsay, an analyst with IHS Markit. “You’re contending with the Civics and the Corollas of the world.”