by Jonathan Yarkony
Mercedes, Smart's parent company, has leaped into the electrification race with both feet, and many of its models are already offered with various electric options, from their bestselling crossovers to the flagship S-Class. In order to emphasize this electrifying wave, they are launching another sub-brand dubbed EQ. Smart is leading the charge in this and has already ditched gasoline power to go exclusively electric, which wasn't all that difficult with just one model in its lineup, the Fortwo, available in coupe and convertible body styles.
Although the EQC crossover is the first vehicle developed for the brand, Smart has swooped in and rebranded its limited lineup with the EQ badge, making the Fortwo the first EQ to hit the market. Mercedes may have flipped the switch on the name change, but the Smart EQ Fortwo remains the same as it has been for the past couple years when it' been known as the Smart Fortwo ED.
No matter what it's called or how good the Smart car might be, whether it's powered by diesel, gasoline, electricity, or rainbows, it's always going to come down to its size.
Being so small, the Smart Fortwo is only intended for a limited range of uses. You probably don't need me to tell you that it's not meant for hauling cargo, family life, or even anyone who needs to travel with more than one person at a time.
Once we've accepted that, we can look at it for the things it is meant to do, and judge it for how well it can perform those duties.
Just how tiny is it? Laughably tiny! Any larger-than-average adult might feel like they're walking up to a Power Wheels when they see it parked between regular-sized cars and crossovers, never mind mammoth SUVs that litter mall parking lots and suburban landscapes. Its actual dimensions are listed as 106.1 inches long, 65.5 inches wide, 61 inches tall, with a 73.7-inch wheelbase, but numbers on a page just don't convey how small it is.
There are many cars on the market that are wider than it is long, so you really can back it into parallel parking spots, taking up just half a space, finding spots where no other car can park.
Although people make fun of its size, that's like making fun of the sky for being blue – it is what it is. The original Smart car was designed to be small so that it would have every advantage of navigating narrow city streets, and use as little fuel getting around as possible, and this third generation hasn't lost that talent.
As to navigating in tight quarters, its 22.8-foot turning radius is easily the most nimble of any vehicle on the market, most of which require at least 30 feet to reverse course. The small size means you're close to the windows, which greatly improves one's field of vision, although primarily to the front and sides, and the rear pillars are wide and do create some blind spots.
Despite the Fortwo's tiny dimensions and being so close to the windows, I never felt claustrophobic, perhaps because its 39.8 inches of headroom meant I had plenty of space over my head even when the roof was on. While I never felt cramped, I wasn't exactly comfortable either. The seats have limited adjustability and aren't very comfortable, and the steering wheel can only be tilted up and down, so some might find it awkward, while it will suit others just fine.
Cargo space is about what you'd expect in this little runabout, measuring 8.7 cubic feet, which is enough for a decent grocery haul and medium size packages, but obviously you're not going antiquing or bringing home appliances.
However, this being the convertible model, if you slide the roof back you could manage all manner of tall things in the passenger seat sticking up through the roof. The roof slides back at the press of a button, with a stop in the middle so it can be opened as a sunroof or further back for more airflow. The side rails can also be removed and stowed in a nifty chamber in the tailgate, giving the Fortwo Cabrio an airy feeling, though perhaps not as much as a conventional convertible with the rear pillars always in place.
At 2,383 pounds, it doesn't take much to power the Smart Fortwo, so even if 80 hp and 118 lb-ft sound measly for your average car, your typical car weighs over 3,000 lb. If you went and looked up its 0-60 mph acceleration time, you might also be tempted to make fun of its speed, but that time only tells half the story. Yes, it does take 11.7 seconds to reach 60 mph, but most of that is the final 10-15 mph. It's actually quick off the line thanks to its light weight, and the 118 lb-ft of torque is available right from idle, getting it across the intersection before some cars have even moved, and reaching city speed limits in just a few short seconds.
And the torque doesn't just serve it leaving a stoplight, it's also very responsive for acceleration at low speeds, so if you're poking along at 30 or 40 mph, you can get a nice squirt of boost to surge ahead and squeeze into gaps in traffic. Lightning McQueen would be proud.
Getting all the way up to highway speeds beyond 60 mph takes patience of course, and while it has the power to cruise at 75 mph and beyond, it's like someone hit the fast-forward button on the range indicator and you can practically see it sweeping across the dial.
At 17.6-kWh, it's not a very big battery, and despite the Smart's light weight and efficiency, its range is severely limited, the EPA estimating it will get you just 58 miles on a full charge, and far less if you really push it at highway speeds. In stop-and-go rush hour or light-to-light traffic in the city, the regenerative braking feeds a trickle of charging back to the battery to stretch that range. On one particular trip I was on track to beat that estimate, but got home before we had to dip into the last 10 miles.
Conveniently, our navigation-equipped Fortwo Prime offered some suggestions of nearby public charging stations when we hit that first battery reserve warning, with about 15 miles of range left.
Once drained, the 7.6-kW onboard charger will recharge the EQ Fortwo's battery to 80 percent in about 2.5 hours when plugged into a 240V charging station, and completely full in 3 hours. A regular 110V household outlet will take 17 hours to reach 80 percent and 21 to fully recharge. After its size, this short range is its biggest limitation. In the plus column, the EQ Fortwo is incredibly efficient, the EPA estimating it costs as much to run as a car that gets 102 mpg overall, 112 in the city and 91 on the highway (the Coupe is slightly better at 124 in the city, 94 on the highway and 108 overall).
Note that this equivalency is calculated based on an average cost of electricity and gas prices, so it could swing in the Smart's favor or against it depending on local energy rates.
The EQ Fortwo Cabrio's might be efficient compared to gasoline-burning competition, but how does it stack up against other leading EVs? The Smart's actual consumption is rated at 33 kWh/100 miles (and the Coupe 31 kWh/100 miles), which is efficient, sure, but the Chevrolet Bolt is estimated at 28 kWh/100 miles and 119 MPGe, Nissan Leaf at 30 kWh/100 miles and 112 MPGe, and the Tesla Model 3 Long Range at 26 kWh/100 miles and 130 MPGe. And of course, all of them have seating for four and significantly more range.
The Smart will be the cheapest to buy, but any of the other EVs should consume less energy despite being bigger and heavier.
Aside from being quick at low speeds and nimble, the Smart EQ Fortwo is surprisingly pleasant to drive. The electric motor is positioned behind the seats, under the trunk floor, and the lithium-ion battery pack is laid out under the floor of the passenger compartment. It's a very efficient design that lowers the center of gravity to benefit handling and maximize usable space. It works. For such a short but upright vehicle, it handles much better than it looks like it should.
Of course, the wheels are almost beyond the corners of the vehicle, the fenders bulging out beyond the vertical rear and front grille, so it's as stable as anything this size could be. Part of the reason the Smart Fortwo is so expensive (which we'll get to later) is the complex and unique suspension.
At the front, it's an independent multilink setup with coil springs, double-tube shock absorbers, and tubular torsion bar, while the rear is a rare de Dion rear axle (a solid axle, but without differentials integrated, so it's not a live axle) with coil springs and double-tube shock absorbers.
Because the wheelbase is so short, the car can get upset and tossed around by larger impacts, but typical bumps and brief rough patches are well cushioned, and I was surprised and impressed by the decent amount of stability in turns and at high speeds. Where previous generations of Smart could be sketchy when tossed into corners or back and forth, the latest EQ Fortwo felt nimble and controlled when I started trying to do go-kart impressions. On the highway it was loud from the wind noise, but felt stable and remained well centered at high speeds.
Overall, although it's not fast, I found it very satisfying to drive, whizzing around with the whirr of the electric motors (and it actually generates a noise at low speeds so pedestrians can hear it), darting between cars and parking with complete ease. Some reviewers criticize it for a rough ride, but on average roads it's not a big deal, so don't let that scare you away.
The Smart EQ Fortwo is available in three Coupe trims and two Cabrio trims, starting with the $23,900 EQ Fortwo Coupe Pure, then moving up to the $25,390 Passion, and $26,740 Prime. The Cabrio skips the Pure trim and starts with the $28,100 Passion and tops out with the $29,750 Prime, though you can add some standalone features to that.
These prices are definitely steep for a two-seat microcar with little power and minimal range, but the Smart Fortwo EQ qualifies for the $7,500 federal EV rebate, plus some state rebates, so in reality the prices start at $16,400 or less and you'd find it hard to spend over $25K.
Pure is fairly basic, the seats trimmed in black cloth or synthetic leather, a multifunction steering wheel, cruise control, and automatic climate control. The standard infotainment system is a 3.5-inch color display with a trip computer, which offers a display of the charging rate, battery charge level, eco score, energy flow, and can be used to program preheating or cooling the vehicle ahead of a planned departure time.
Passion not only adds feature content but also more interior color combinations like black/orange, black/white instead of all black. Feature highlights include leather steering wheel, height-adjustable driver's seat, electric and heated sideview mirrors, and 15-inch wheels with black accents.
Prime adds black leather with gray stitching and heating for the seats, ambient interior lighting, rain-sensing wipers, and LED taillights and daytime running lights. The coupe also gets a panoramic sunroof in Prime trim.
You certainly won't mistake the smart for a luxury car in any trim, as the materials are basic and touchscreen is rudimentary even with the upgraded 7-inch touchscreen display. However, there are a few additional functions with the 7-inch system, mostly focused around the navigation. Range is taken into consideration when programming destinations in the nav system, which includes live traffic information, and you can select charging stations as intermediate destinations.
As mentioned, the navigation also suggests nearby charging stations when you get your first low-battery warning, which should give you enough range to reach the nearest charger. The system also adds a stereo upgrade, Android Auto smartphone integration, and back-up camera displayed in the rearview mirror.
As I mentioned up front, the Smart car doesn't have universal appeal, but it's incredibly good at what it was designed to do, and then some. Its small size and excellent maneuverability make it perfect for narrow urban landscapes, easily navigating alleys or tight lanes. Its limited passenger space might rule it out as a family vehicle, but it can still serve businesses and municipalities that simply need to move a person or two or small deliveries within a limited range.
However, individuals that live a downtown lifestyle, want a second car for a short run to work, or need a car just to get between home and the commuter-train parking lot might find the Smart a good fit, and with the federal rebate taken into account, it can actually be a very cheap car to own.