Preview: 2011 smart electric drive

By Casey Williams

You’ve been warned. There’s an invasion of battery-powered electric cars approaching. Tesla already carved out its niche at the top of the market with its Lotus Elise-based Roadster. Nissan is preparing to launch its American-built Leaf electric car this fall; Automotive News and several other publications recently had the chance to drive one of four production Leafs in existence. smart will lease an all-electric version of its tiny fortwo this fall, and I’m one of very few journalists who’s driven it.

Smart-Electric-Plug.jpgGreen wheels, mirrors, and exposed safety cell around the passenger compartment are clues this is not your normal smart. Open the gas cap and you’ll find a multi-pronged receptor that connects to 110v or 220v outlets, the latter for a quick charge. Cords are stored in the tailgate. Inside, the car is outfitted with green trim and the Pure edition’s steering wheel, since the car uses a continuously-variable transmission instead of the gasoline version’s five-speed paddle-shift automatic. Charge meters occupy the dashtop bug-eyes.

Making the electric drive possible are high-capacity Lithium-Ion batteries and regenerative brakes that charge the batteries when decelerating. The electrical system is engineered by smart’s partner, Tesla. Plugged to a 220v outlet, the car can be charged in 4 – 6 hours; fully topped off, it’s good for a 100-mile driving range.

SmartElectricGauges.jpgLike all electric cars, nothing really happens when you turn the smart electric drive’s key. It goes into stand-by mode until you press the throttle, whereupon the car gently and quietly whirs away. Having driven many miles in gasoline-powered smarts with their sometimes-hesitant transmissions and mechanical engines, it’s eerie to step on the throttle, hear nothing, and feel nothing but smooth acceleration.

Making electric cars viable is going to take a concerted effort by automakers, dealers, drivers, and utility companies. Local dealers are actively involved in convincing power companies, state lawmakers, and the federal government to offer incentives for electric cars. These incentives will be necessary to lower the cars’ prices to something competitive with hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.

SmartElectricRear.jpgThe smart won’t be alone when it debuts. Nissan will launch the five-door Leaf from its plant in Tennessee with a price presumably similar to smart. One level up in sophistication, Chevrolet will offer the 2011 Volt extended-range electric car that can travel 40 miles on a charge, then continue about 300 miles with an auxiliary gas engine charging the batteries.

This feels vaguely familiar since I drove the GM EV1 in 1996. That car was a dream, quick as a Camaro, but was conceived two decades too early and failed because of limited range and a high price. Better batteries promise different results for the Volt. Prices are still being finalized, but expect to pay about $25,000 for a smart or Leaf (after incentives). Chevy Volts will begin around $40,000.

Let the electric invasion begin!