Automotive and Energy Efficiency and Energy & Environment and Alternative energy and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

Smart plug-in is audibly different from conventional model

July 3, 2010

The future of electric-powered automotive transportation is already sitting in the showroom of the Indianapolis Smart car dealership at 4000 E. 96th St.

It’s a European version of the plug-in Smart.

Sorry, but it’s not yet for sale. The speedometer reads in kilometers per hour and the owner’s manual is in German.

If not for the big green decals on the side, you’d be hard-pressed to tell this was an electric version of the diminutive two-seater.

In fact, unlike a conventional hybrid, there’s not an elaborate electronic information screen. Rather, in place of the car’s tachometer and other instrument pods, there are analog gauges that show battery charge and kilowatts consumed. The latter helps one learn to drive economically, to stretch the time between recharging.

The other differences are a charging receptacle in place of the conventional gas cap. And the interior side of the tailgate flips open to reveal a yellow charging cable.

“There’s nothing fluff about this car—all brains. It doesn’t take away anything from the culture of the previous model,” said store manager Walter Grassi.

But there are differences in performance. In fact, as a quick test drive showed, the plug-in Smart is actually speedier from launch than a gasoline-powered model. The computer seems to smooth the acceleration so it doesn’t feel jerky. There’s plenty of torque and little vibration, unlike that gasoline-powered model that requires one to upshift using steering-wheel-mounted paddles or by letting off the gas pedal briefly to trigger the next gear.

Oddly enough, the sound of the electric Smart may be the most compelling aspect when it comes to driving. The electric drive emits a jet engine sound, albeit at a subtle volume. Jet engine may be too crude a description—perhaps more like that indescribable, high-tech sound of a laptop computer’s hard drive. This kind of sound may be to the next generation of drivers what the sound a muscle car with a couple of Flowmaster mufflers was to baby boomers.

The Smart’s high-tech sound is mesmerizing enough to leave the radio turned off to enjoy the spaceship sounds. Grassi jokes about installing stubby wings onto the side of the pod-like car. He might be onto something there.

As for range, this version assembled in Europe likely won’t go more than 85 miles or so on a charge. That’s fine for testing with local fleets, which will get some of the 250 electric Smarts parent Daimler AG plans to ship to test cities this fall.

A retail version is expected in 2012. By then, battery and drive technology should have evolved to the point of offering longer range.•

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