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Convertible smart car is fun to drive but flawed

The 2013 Smart ForTwo gets an estimated 76

The 2013 Smart ForTwo gets an estimated 76 miles on a single charge. Credit:

The tiny Smart ForTwo isn't one of our favorite cars, and we have no qualms telling the world what we think of it. People around the world have been equally forthcoming in their comments about our evaluation of it as well, with nearly fanatical owners accusing us of bashing it unfairly. It's hard to deny that the standard ForTwo is slow, cheap feeling, inefficient and a questionable purchase compared to its competitors.

But now Smart is trying something new, something that the company says was intended from the very beginning: an electric version. The 2013 Smart ForTwo ED (for Electric Drive, not for a condition remedied by little blue pills) is here, and while not a perfect answer to the issues that plague the gas-powered version, the Electric Drive certainly makes for a more interesting proposition.

Gone is the anemic 70-horsepower, three-cylinder engine driving the rear wheels through an automated manual transmission. In its place is a 74-hp electric motor and single-speed gearbox, drawing energy from a 17.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. Performance with the new powertrain isn't much improved, however, with zero-to-60 mph still taking upward of 11.5 seconds. This is faster than the gas-powered version — believe it or not — but it still isn't going to get your pulse racing. Both the Fiat 500e and Chevrolet Spark EV could handily trounce it in a stoplight drag race.

The ForTwo ED has an official city range of 76 miles and a recharge time of about six hours on a 240-volt Level 2 charging system. Plug it in to a household 110-volt outlet and it'll take about 14 hours from empty to full or about 10 hours to go from a 20% to an 80% charge. The numbers are on the high side these days, as more and more electric vehicles get higher-capacity chargers that allow for faster recharging. Level 3 DC fast charging is not an option on the ForTwo ED.

Aside from these changes, the Smart ForTwo ED isn't much different than the standard model. The interior is largely the same funky-styled little two-seat environment with some extra EV-related gauges and almost no cargo capacity. It is decently comfortable, has all the bells and whistles one could want in a commuter car and even has an optional navigation system. It looks pretty good in bright red cloth, too.

The driving experience is indeed improved — there's no lurching, jerky automated manual transmission, just a smooth flow of torque and motion when you press the accelerator. At speeds up to 30 mph or so, in urban stop-and-go traffic for instance, the ED feels reasonably quick. But get out of that environment or find yourself trying to keep up with faster traffic, and you'll quickly find the ED is still pokey.

The electric power steering feels unusually heavy for a tiny city car. Unlike competitors like the Fiat 500e, the ForTwo ED does not feel light and nimble, but rather ponderous and slow to react to directional input. Brakes feel completely artificial — it's bottom-hinged, high-effort pedal is golf-cart-like. All in all, the experience is better than the gas-powered version but still not great. What's the upside? Two things: It's not expensive, and you can get one as a convertible. That's right; this is the world's only EV droptop. And it's amazing how much you can forgive when you can pop the top on a warm, sunny day.

Yes it's slow — but then you pop the top, and you don't care. It doesn't handle particularly well — and then you pop the top, and you don't care. You can carry a passenger or groceries but not both — and then you pop the top, and you don't care. The controls feel cheap and plasticky — but then, well, you get the idea.

Push the button and the two-position convertible top lowers at any driving speed. Pull over and you can also slide out the frame rails, creating more of a targa-style open-air motoring experience. Puttering around town in a silent electric whoosh becomes fun (until you hit a pothole and the whole car clangs like a bell), and you exclaim to yourself, "You know, this ain't so bad!" Unlike other automakers' electric cars, you can even get one in any color Smart offers, as long as it's, well, any color it offers.

Here's the other kicker — it's priced to sell. Smart would very much like you to lease one instead of buy one, and it's offering some nicely incentivized leases as well as a service called Battery Assurance Plus. The optional subscription program essentially "rents" you the vehicle's battery along with a host of performance and defect coverage. Sign up for the 36-month lease at $139 a month, including an $80/month BAP subscription, and you'll never have to worry about the battery losing its overall charge capacity over time. The convertible is a little bit more and starts at $199 a month. These are reduced prices from the previous version of the Smart ED as well, and are meant to make it the most affordable EV. Both leases require $1,999 down.

But purchasing one might be even more of a stunning bargain, depending on where you live. The ED is currently only available in eight "zero emissions vehicle" states, but will be rolling out nationwide early next year. The purchase price for a basic coupe is $25,750 including destination. But that's before tacking on the rebates and tax credits. The federal government will offer you a $7,500 income tax credit (not officially a rebate, but we'll include it here for net pricing purposes), California will kick in $2,500, the San Joaquin Valley has a program that cuts up to another $3,000 on top of that, and if by some chance you work for Sony Pictures in Southern California, you could get another $5,000 on top of that. Smart is also offering $2,000 dealer cash for purchases. Add it up to potentially take $20,000 off the price of the $25,750 electric car.

A brand-new electric car for less than an inexpensive motorcycle? That changes the picture considerably for lucky electric vehicle fans who live and work in the right place.

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