– Stanfield, Arizona
I’m not sure I understand what a weekend is for, anymore. It’s a Saturday morning in an exurb of Phoenix, and I’m riding shotgun in a prototype of the next Smart ForTwo Electric Drive with the brand’s leader of hybrid and electric vehicles, Andreas Söns, at the wheel. Presumably, I had traveled to an Arizona proving ground in the middle of the summer to witness the final stages of validation testing for the next generation of Smart’s electric car from the passenger seat. The temperature is cresting 100 degrees Fahrenheit at high noon – it’s a dry heat, okay? – and the air conditioning is laboring to chill the mostly undisguised mule. Almost half a year will elapse before the production versions of the ForTwo ED hit public roads, but the bulk of the engineering on the awkwardly named Smart is nearly complete.
The proving ground course features stretches of tarmac modeled after the world’s most extreme, from the best race tracks to crumbling inner-city roads. After a long and narrow but relatively straight stretch, out of nowhere appears an uphill, decreasing radius turn that’s fashioned after a poorly conceived off-ramp on I-78 in New Jersey. Most drivers would cower at the blindness of the corner, brake into it, and slowly peek ahead and accelerate gently into the expanding horizon. Stoic Söns takes this opportunity to instead brake late and turn swiftly in to hit the apex, before jumping back onto the throttle for the next curve. I don’t flinch – at first. Dynamic S-bends that follow would challenge any performance car, but the ForTwo ED stays flat throughout. Söns increases his speed through another series of bends, nearly kicking a wheel into the dirt runoff area, gauging my nonexistent poker face for consent. The handling course, nicknamed “marketability” by someone with a wry sense of humor, ends shortly thereafter.
Smart is a funky, off-beat brand all its own, and so the ForTwo ED gets a second lease on life.
“The fun part is over,” Söns says, smiling, as we exit the bendy bits for a stint on the high-speed oval.
That an electric, two-passenger hatchback should be a track car is not the top reason why most consumers will look to the Smart ForTwo ED, but it’s refreshing to see both the light and serious sides of Mercedes-Benz’ city car brand. Almost a decade has ticked by since the first ForTwo ED appeared on the U.S. market with a name better suited for a late-night infomercial than acting as lynchpin of a burgeoning electric-car strategy. Smart executives are confident that the name does not need to be amended. Just ask them.
A worthy successor was deemed necessary, both to capture the interest of now-loyal EV customers of Smart, as well as fuel economy standards. It’s an understatement to say that the Mercedes-Benz B-Class EV has failed to capture the predicted percentage of EV enthusiasts, but the Smart is a funky, off-beat brand all its own, and so the ForTwo ED got a second lease on life.
Much of what’s under the plastic panels and sheetmetal of the 2017 ForTwo ED will remain hush-hush until the official reveal at the Paris Motor Show in September.
Much of what’s under the plastic panels and sheetmetal of the 2017 ForTwo ED will remain hush-hush until the official reveal at the Paris Motor Show in September, but the engineers were happy to share their progress in relative terms. Underneath the camouflage shown here is an optional, green and white color scheme, not unlike the current version. Otherwise, it’s difficult to know what’s production-spec and what isn’t, but I’m told that the final car won’t stray much from what I’m shown. The same goes for the Fortwo ED’s anticipated price, which is likely to remain under $30,000 before incentives, and availability beyond the “ZEV” states: California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
The next ForTwo ED will not make significant advances in defining the electric vehicle, but it will represent a leap over the current model’s power, range, and charging ability. It will remain a Level 2 EV, which means it can be plugged into a typical, 240-volt charging station, and its electric motor will occupy the same space (or less) than a conventional ForTwo’s petite three-cylinder gasoline engine. Its lithium-ion battery pack will again reside under the passenger compartment. In a feat of packaging, the somewhat compromised cargo area is not further diminished by the EV conversion.
The next ForTwo ED will offer “more power and a little more mileage” than the existing model.
Pressured to offer some specifics about numbers, Söns speaks in relative terms: the next ForTwo ED will offer “more power and a little more mileage” than the existing model. For some perspective, the model you can buy right now produces 74 horsepower and 96 pound-feet of torque, and has an estimated range of about 75 miles per charge. Estimating conservatively, this would bring the ForTwo ED into the territory of the Nissan Leaf, despite offering space for half as many occupants and their things. An electrified Smart ForFour, and not for sale in the United States, will have nearly the same capabilities, according to EV testing leader Juan Medina. Unlike the Leaf, or the more-expensive BMW i3, the ForTwo ED will not be able to recharge at a DC, Level 3 charger. Medina cites the need to keep the Smart affordable, among a corps of EVs that are only getting more expensive.
Back to the track: On the high-speed oval, I ask Söns to elaborate on the Fortwo ED’s top speed. He refuses, checks his mirrors, and then proceeds to go flat-out on the accelerator. Approaching a banked curve, the ForTwo ED hits approximately 90 mph, remaining stable and unruffled by wind. The acceleration to top speed isn’t Tesla Model S P90D-quick, but few experiences are. (It’s closer in feel to that of a Volkswagen e-Golf or Chevrolet Spark EV.) Later in the day, on the surface streets of Phoenix, the ForTwo ED would impress with quick sprints to 35 mph – as fast as most ForTwo EDs will travel in urban environments – and impressively smooth lane changes and braking.
It seems that the ForTwo hasn’t lost its trademark ability to slice through traffic with blade-like acuity.
From my perch, not driving, it seems that the ForTwo hasn’t lost its trademark ability to slice through traffic with blade-like acuity. Ride quality has improved greatly from the current EV model’s tendency to showcase every bump and pothole. Even as the mercury rises to a sweltering 110 degrees at times, and I’m sweating through a lightweight linen shirt, the batteries haven’t called it quits. Over two days of testing, the ForTwo’s never run out of juice unexpectedly – a useful advantage when you’re proving their ability on a rural desert mountain road – although their overall range remains a mystery.
The most important advancement to the ForTwo ED might be its recharge time, which is estimated to be under three hours, using a standard Level 2 charger. A forthcoming 22-kWh onboard charger is expected to halve that time, enabling fill-ups of about an hour in length—and Smart would be keen to charge a Tesla-tiered premium for it. The quick charging would make the ForTwo ED an actual game changer, in a world of eight-hour fill-ups for the pleasure of 60 or so miles of range.
After two days at the track and on the searing streets of the Southwest, it’s clear that there’s a real EV future for Smart.
Toward the end of the second day of testing, Söns and Medina decide to show off the ForTwo ED’s refined lack of noise, vibration, and harshness on an off-road dirt course. I’m standing on the edge of the course while the two engineers go around a couple of times for photographs. I climb back in the ForTwo with Söns after he does a couple of laps, admonishing him for not making the photos more interesting on the course that looks like a rally stage.
“You know, you’re right,” he says. Without hesitation, he guns the accelerator and powers forward toward the first kink in the oval, before drifting the ForTwo ED through it. The rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive Smart stays upright and remains playful. I’m not sure if it qualifies as “power sliding,” but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in an electric car – including acceleration runs in a high-power Model S. Medina follows more cautiously, but with gusto.
Attending the final stages of tweaking and development for a future product is some kind of privilege. Watching a couple of senior executives turn a durability testing area into a dirt rally stage, behind the wheel of a couple of unfinished electric vehicles, makes it all worth the profuse sweating. After two days at the track and on the searing streets of the Southwest, it’s clear that there’s a real EV future for Smart. Now, about that name...
Photos: Jeff Jablansky / Motor1.com