In past reviews, I’ve written about the sublime pleasure of driving around Los Angeles in a convertible on a warm, balmy night.
Now I’ve found a way to make it even more sublime: Add silence.
The Smart ForTwo — which you’ll see in great numbers in any major European capital, but in small numbers in the United States — is a suitcase-sized two-door designed for intelligent urban living.
The Electric Drive, its battery electric brother, is the smart Smart ForTwo, a plug-in commuter car that is small in stature but large in fuel savings.
Also offered as a cabriolet, it must be the world’s smallest, cutest and most affordable convertible plug-in.
Plus it’s so small and light that if it runs out of juice, you can simply sling the shoulder harness over your back and haul the little guy home.
Smart cars first hit the road in the 1990s, as a result of co-design efforts between Mercedes-Benz and the Swatch watch company. After a succession of two-passenger, four-passenger and even roadster variants, the Daimler-owned company settled on the ForTwo model, and later added a battery-electric-vehicle, or BEV, version.
Propelled by a 17.6-kWh battery connected to a 60-kW electric motor, the electric ForTwo is said to produce the equivalent of 80 horsepower and 118 pound-feet of torque.
On such a small vehicle (it reportedly weighs 2,363 pounds, and is almost cubic in its squat dimensions), that’s plenty of pep. The Smart scoots around town capably, and gets quickly up to freeway speed, even in the battery-saving Eco mode.
There’s no learning curve. The Smart is easy to operate, and fun to drive. Parking is hilarious — you can almost fit two in a standard metered parking space — and the turning radius is so tight that while you can’t literally turn on a dime, you can maneuver easily in very narrow situations.
The stiff suspension helps with cornering, while also, unfortunately, accentuating every wrinkle in the pavement. The regenerative braking system — which uses the electric motor to slow the car down and return energy to the battery when the accelerator is released — makes for almost one-pedal driving. The brakes will last a long, long time.
Dashboard displays and a dash-mounted energy gauge provide data on energy use, battery power and remaining range. A very small rearview screen, housed inside the rearview mirror, improves the limited visibility.
It’s easy to forget, once behind the wheel, what a tiny car this is. The driver and passenger space is substantial for a small sedan. I had plenty of leg room and head room, and was hardly aware when I was driving that there was very little actual car in front of me or behind me.
The design ethic is attractive and minimalist — still bearing the mark of the Swatch input. Two cup holders sit in the center console. There’s a small storage pouch in the door, and a very tiny glove compartment, about big enough for a pair of actual gloves.
As for trunk space, well, no. There is a little cubby behind the seats, but you won’t be bringing your golf clubs along unless you’re planning to putt-putt at Scandia or Sherman Oaks Castle Park.
It was difficult for me to be sure, from the mixed city and highway driving I did, how accurate the EPA-approved range on this ForTwo would be in real life.
But I did have the opportunity to test the home charging situation. For me, on a common household plug, the ForTwo’s stated EV range rose from 28 miles to 52 miles after a 10-hour overnight charge. A second time, the overnight charge raised my range from 13 to 35 miles.
Those nervous about BEVs will say the overnight charge is too slow, and indeed it takes a very long time to bring the battery from empty to full from a standard household socket.
But most commuters won’t be doing that. Instead, they’ll be topping up, juicing from 60% to 80%, say, and storing enough energy to do their daily drives.
Besides, the Smart folks say, the car can also be fully charged in around three hours on a Level 2 system, using a 7.2-kW charger that comes standard, and in less than an hour on a Level 3 charger.
The Smart starts at a very low MSRP. A gasoline-powered ForTwo is priced from $15,410. The base model electric drive, non-cabriolet version starts at $28,850, before factoring in any rebates or tax incentives, which in some areas could total $10,000.
That’s cheap! And, as is sometimes the case with automobiles, you get what you pay for. Even the upgraded electric version, which includes such amenities as leather upholstery, heated seats, heated steering wheel and a fancy JBL sound system, retains much of the entry-level car’s feeling — in the plastic door panels and interior parts, for example, and the absence of adequate sound-deadening materials in the carpet, glass or roof.
But the drop top aspect is beautiful. The canvas top slides down with the push of a button. Good wind management makes the ForTwo almost as quiet on the freeway with the top down as with the top up.
What’s left is the sound of silence.
The slow pace of BEV car sales, even in forward-leaning California, proves that electric vehicles aren’t for everyone — especially for people with long commutes, or large families, or towing needs, or no place to conveniently charge.
But the Smart ForTwo electric drive cabrio ought to go right to the top of the list for everyone else.
2018 Smart ForTwo Electric Cabriolet
The Times' take: The world’s cutest affordable electric convertible
Highs: A smart take on the small commuter BEV
Lows: Lower-cost materials feel a little cheap
Vehicle type: Two-door, two-passenger convertible
Base price: $28,850
Price as tested: $32,180
Powertrain: 17.6-kWh battery, 60-kW electric motor
Transmission: One-speed automatic
Torque: 118 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 112 miles per gallon equivalent city / 91 highway / 102 combined
EPA approved range: 57 miles