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Quick Spin: 2011 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive

As if having to deal with all of those tiny little cars from Smart snagging every possible parking space when you’re not around wasn’t already annoying, soon they’re going to be able to sneak up and steal them right out from under you.

The nearly silent, Smart Fortwo Electric Drive will be hitting U.S. roads this October. The battery-powered runabout fulfilling a prophecy that was laid out for the vehicle the day it was designed. The two-seater (literally a car ‘for two’, if you never figured that one out) trading its conventional powertrain for an all-electric setup that’s as clean as the energy that goes into it - be it from the wind, sun or a good old fashioned coal furnace.

Keeping in line with Smart’s highly efficient packaging ethos, the new equipment fits perfectly into the space vacated by the old internal combustion engine and its accoutrements. The battery pack slips in under the seats where the gas tank is usually found, while the liquid-cooled motor and its associated electronics fill the engine bay. Due to the low production volumes expected, Smart uses the same transmission housing as the standard car, but it now holds just one gear instead of five. Theoretically, it could be much smaller.

Smart always had an electric version in mind for the Fortwo model and future-proofed the layout of the platform for such an eventuality. The end result is that there’s no encroachment on passenger or cargo room, which are still easily able to accommodate a pair of plus-six-footers and their overnight bags.

In fact, from the driver’s seat, the only tip off that anything has changed are two pods on top of the dashboard that house the gauges for battery charge level and how much power is being generated by the motor. Typically it runs up to a mere 20 kilowatts, the equivalent of about 27 horsepower, but when you floor the accelerator it gets a boost to 30 kw, or 41 hp.

The maximum torque rating is a slightly more robust sounding 88 pound-feet, which is not bad in a car that weighs just 2100 pounds – only 308 more than the standard model. The go-pedal is a little slow to respond from a standstill, but once you’re rolling along the car delivers reasonably quick acceleration up to about 30 mph, at which point things start teetering off as it heads towards its speeding-ticket-avoiding 65 mph top speed.

On the way there, the experience is surprisingly refined. The motor is quiet, with just a hint of a pleasant whine making its way into the cabin. Compared to a regular Fortwo, the ride is substantially smoother, and not nearly as bouncy over rough pavement, thanks in part to the extra weight of the battery pack pinning it down.

Better still, the single speed transmission - standard issue for electric cars - remedies the worst feature of the regular Smart - its automated-manual gearbox. Essentially a manual that has a clumsy robot taking care of the clutching and shifting duties, its operation defines the phrase ‘herky-jerky’ and is infamous among critics and owners, requiring the latter to make up lame excuses as to why it doesn’t bother them. “You get used to it,” they say. Having spent a couple of hundred miles in Fortwos, I’d love to know at exactly what point that happens.

Instead, power delivery in the electric version should cause you no consternation for the 82 miles that you can drive it between charges. Not very far? Did you know that a majority of Americans drive 40 miles or less per day? Check your odometer, because you could be one of them.

The small travel radius shouldn’t put the Fortwo at too much of a disadvantage compared to the other electric cars heading to showrooms in the coming months, though, as most of them boast a range of only about 100 - 120 miles. According to the folks at Smart ‘boast’ is the operative word, because they expect that few of the vehicles achieve such distances in real world driving, while their own claim is precise, rather than a headline for an advertising campaign. Time will tell.

To this end, the specification sheet pegs the capacity of the liquid-cooled, Tesla-designed lithium-ion battery pack at 16.5 kilowatt hours, but it’s actually larger. Instead, that figure represents how much of the total charge is useable without over-stressing the battery, causing untimely degradation. All electric cars work this way, but most auto makers quote the full size of the pack. In any case, Smart says that even with the effects of aging, the buffer means that you’ll see no loss of range over the life of the vehicle.

Plugged in to a 220-volt outlet, you can charge the battery from 20 to 80 percent of useable capacity in three and a half hours. It takes eight for a full charge. Only have access to 110 volts? See you tomorrow. Like the range, all of this is pretty much par for the electric course.

The good news is that at the national average of 10 cents per kilowatt for electricity, the electric Fortwo can be driven 50 miles for a buck. A Toyota Prius will burn one gallon of gas over the same distance and cost you closer to three. That’s money in the bank, at least until your bill from the leasing company.

Initially, the electric Fortwo will only be offered through a four-year lease at $599 per month, which equates to a sticker price of roughly $45,000. That includes all of the tax breaks available for electric cars. For comparison, the gasoline-powered version starts at $11,990. Like that one, you’ll be able to get it as a hardtop or a convertible.

Along with what’s quickly becoming a requisite smart phone app that allows you to monitor the car’s vitals, and even turn on the climate control from the comfort of your home, the high price does come with exclusivity. Only 250 Fortwo Electric Drives are coming our way over the next year before full production ramps up in January, 2013. Most of them will go to commercial fleets, and all will be clustered in the select markets of Portland, San Jose, Orlando, Indianapolis, and the I-95 corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston. This will allow Smart to service the vehicles better, collect feedback from drivers and work more closely with utility companies that are developing the kind of charging infrastructure needed to support the use of electric vehicles.

Unfortunately for Smart, its cars aren’t the only ones that will be able to take advantage of it.

Around the same time that the Fortwo Electric Drive hits showrooms, Nissan will be launching its five-door, five-passenger Leaf with an after tax credit sticker price of $25,280 and one of those 100-mile range claims, which would seem to put Smart in a tough position if it can’t bring the price down when series production begins. Nevertheless, the automaker says that its teeny, mostly recyclable car appeals to a different kind of customer, one looking to make the ultimate environmental statement about material conservation and urban congestion, not to mention saving the world from big oil. Even at a premium, it probably won’t be hard to find 250 of them who are willing to pay for the privilege.

Besides, with so few parking spaces out there that are near power outlets, just you wait and see who has the last laugh.