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First Drive: 2013 Smart ED

If price is your sole concern, the smart ED is the most frugal option with a sprinkle of fun thrown in for good measure.

I’m going to assume at this point you’ve seen the syrupy sweet and sickeningly cute gasoline-powered smart Fortwo bouncing around your town. If not, let me get you up to speed: it’s a super-compact car aimed at people looking to mostly cart themselves around the city, making it fuel-efficient, maneuverable and surprisingly enjoyable to drive.

If you thought the little gas burner was adorable, then meet the quiet, emissionless 2013 smart Electric Drive (ED). With a $25,000 base price, it’s both the cheapest EV on the market and the only one to offer a convertible cabriolet option.

Despite its electric powertrain, the smart ED feels, for the most part, like a “normal” car.

The all-electric ED (stop snickering) retains the same darling proportions, but replaces the gasoline engine with an electric motor powered by a 17.6 kilowatt-hour (kWH) lithium-ion battery pack. Smart says the ED’s battery is capable of netting 122 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), with a total range of 76 miles in the city and 59 miles on the highway.

That might not sound like much, especially when taking into account the ED’s small frame, but according to smart, over 100 million people drive solo to work every day, with a whopping 80 percent of those commutes totaling less than 40 miles round-trip.

If that’s the case, then the smart ED has the potential to meet a lot of drivers’ needs. But the question is: Does it? I took it for a spin in San Francisco – exactly the sort of city it was designed for – to find out.

Stick and move

Lined up in neat row outside San Francisco’s Zeta Hotel, my eyes darted from smart to smart, quickly settling on the first red model I saw. The smart ED is available as a coupe or cabriolet in practically any color combination your creative mind can think of. But it seemed fate was pulling me toward the devilish luster of the Rally Red Cabrio that day. The fact that it was a clear and sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky meant the Cabrio was the perfect choice.

The smart ED might rock a complicated electric powertrain, but inside it’s a different story. Getting the car to move is as simple as placing the shifter in “D” and stepping on the accelerator. However, I was left scratching my head for a minute looking for the ill-placed ignition, which is located just behind the shifter. Smart, can we just get a button, please? It’s 2013.

Even though I’d driven a smart ED before, it always surprises me how roomy the car is. I’m not particularly tall but I have broad shoulders, and I never felt the cabin was going to cave in on me.

2013 Smart ED left side

Once primed and strapped in, it was time to drop the top and let the sun’s rays beat down into the cabin. A small button located near the console lowers and raises the cabrio’s soft top, leaving the pillars and roof rails in place. Both the pillar and roof rails are completely removable and can be tossed in the trunk, but I figured “why bother?” and just left them up.

Having never driven in downtown San Francisco, the amount of traffic on a Tuesday afternoon was initially a little overwhelming. With larger cars swarming around me like bees on honey, it took a moment for me to realize that I wasn’t in an average-sized car.

In a normal (read: larger) car, driving in traffic is a horrid affair, especially in the crowded cities that smarts were bred for. Streets are narrow. Lane markings are faded. Drivers become impatient and frustrated, which leads to aggressive driving.

I hear the term “go-kart” a lot to describe the smart ED’s handling dynamics, but despite becoming cliché, that’s the best way to label it.

The smart ED’s strengths play to the metropolis’ weaknesses. Thanks to its zippy acceleration and diminutive size, I had no trouble bobbing and weaving in and out of traffic like a motorized Muhammad Ali.

Of course, with 47 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque (that’s more than the gasoline-powered Fortwo mind you), the smart ED isn’t exactly Seabiscuit out of the gate. But with its low curb weight of 2,000 pounds, it could beat my grandma in a foot race, and easily scoots into gaps where Impalas and Accords dare not tread.

While San Francisco’s tight streets made a natural fit for the ED, I was skeptical that the little motor could tackle the city’s famously steep hills. But even at a complete stop, with the car’s nose pointed towards the heavens, I was able to give the EV some juice and launch upward with ease. The smart ED even sports a handy hill-assist feature that kept me from barreling backwards into the Painted Ladies.

Sadly, it wasn’t long after I was whizzing by the Golden Gate Bridge, that I noticed my foot starting to cramp up. My major gripe with the ED was how firm the accelerator felt the moment I placed my foot down. I suppose the majority of people won’t find this to be as annoying, considering the car’s intended range and purpose, but I did.

Despite its electric powertrain, the smart ED feels, for the most part, like a “normal” car. Letting off the brake brings it to a slow crawl, switching on the regenerative braking system. Smart also offers a version of the Fortwo ED with steering-wheel paddle shifters that allows you to increase and decrease the level of regenerative braking, but the car I drove didn’t have that option.

I’m not sure how much of an improvement paddle shifters would make, but just like the accelerator pedal, pressing down on the brake felt  uncomfortable, albeit a smidge more forgiving.

The saving grace here is that the ED’s regenerative braking system, which recaptures lost energy and zaps it back into the battery, is tuned rather aggressively. By lifting my foot off the accelerator, and timing it just right, I was able to bring myself to a complete stop a number of times nearly sans brake pedal action and save myself a trip to drug store for a tube of Bengay.

Frankly, the ED’s throttle and braking calibration is just too stiff, so I’m hoping smart can cure this problem for next year’s model so that these issues don’t continue to tarnish an otherwise enjoyable experience.

Getting a handle

I hear the term “go-kart” a lot to describe the smart ED’s handling dynamics, but despite becoming cliché, that’s the best way to label it.

That description became even more apt as I approached San Francisco’s snaking Lombard Street. Here, I managed to resist the urge to do my best impression of Steve McQueen in Bullitt, and instead tackled the road with a greater degree of value for human life, all the while impressed by how well the car zigs and zags through tight spaces.

Even though I’d been in a smart ED before, it always surprises me how roomy the car is.

Thanks to the car’s already hunched stance and low-slung battery packs, I was able whip around corners with a degree of reckless abandon. Even cabin sway was kept at bay whenever I got frisky with the steering wheel. The assisted rack and pinion electric steering, however, feels too meaty at higher speeds but softens up considerably at lower speeds, greatly improving maneuverability.

But while it handles well enough but the tiny wheelbase of the smart ED meant that I felt every bump and blemish in the road. I might be exaggerating a bit, but if you live in a city with roads in need of some serious work, prepare to take more notice and maybe even start writing that letter to your local representative.

The price is right

I wasn’t exactly concerned with range levels during my press drive, but smart makes it easy to monitor your energy use with two sporty-looking performance gauges perched atop the dash. One indicates total battery level, while the other indicates how hard you’re taxing (or replenishing) the battery. Mashing on the pedal pushed the needle on this gauge into the red, indicating I was using 100 percent of the battery power, while braking or driving downhill moved the needle into the “charge” zone, letting me know electrons were trickling back in.

Regrettably, the duration of my test drive prevented me from juicing up the ED myself, but smart says a full charge takes about 6 hours when using a 240-volt charging station. Smart was adamant to point out that that figure is for a completely depleted battery, which in real-world driving situations will probably never happen. Sadly, the 2013 smart ED doesn’t support fast charging in the U.S. using the new Combo DC system.

2013 Smart ED front parked closeup

Performance and range issue aside, at $25,000 for the Coupe version, and $28,000 for the Cabriolet (before federal and local incentives) the 2013 smart Electric Drive is the cheapest EV on the market. And for sunshine lovers, it’s also the only convertible EV available.

Smart’s recently announced Battery Assurance Plus program also allows you to rent the ED’s battery, guaranteeing its performance for 10 years. It costs $80 a month to enroll, but smart will cut the price of the car by $5,000 if you opt in. Do the math and that knocks the Coupe and Cabriolet down to $20,000 and $23,000 before government incentives, which will shave off at least another $7,500, and more depending on which state you live in.

Nice but niche

The 2013 smart ED will shock you in a number of ways. It’s mostly fun to drive, it’s surprisingly roomy, and it’s cheap as dirt.

As with most EVs, it will get you from A to B with ease, assuming A and B aren’t too far from each other. And it’s one of the few cars that actually managed to soothe my stress levels during congested city driving. But the ED’s limited range won’ t be whisking you off to the mountains for that long-overdue weekend getaway, nor will it ferry to and fro with more than a few bags of groceries, especially if you’ve got a co-pilot.

Ultimately, the price of the smart ED alone makes it a compelling choice, but there are more practical and refined options you should explore, like the Honda Fit EV, Chevy Spark EV and Fiat 500e.

Those cars offer slightly increased range as well as more room for passengers and cargo. But if price is your sole concern, the smart ED is the most frugal option with a sprinkle of fun thrown in for good measure.

Highs

  • Interior is surprisingly roomy for driver and passengers
  • Compact design makes zipping around the city and into tight spaces a breeze
  • Cabriolet version is a blast to drive in warm climates

Lows

  • Range and size reduce the Smart ED’s practicality outside of the city
  • Short wheelbase translates to bumpy ride
  • Very limited cargo space