Can new Smart car make the UK love electric?
12th Jun 2009 | 14:27
We speak to the makers of the BRABUS electric drive
Smart car was in the UK this week to show off the latest version of its electric car – the BRABUS electric drive.
Although just a concept at the moment, the car is a promising move for Mercedes-Benz, the makers of Smart, as it promises to bring a bit of spark to Britain's snail-paced electric car industry.
Positioning itself as a 'sports car' is more tongue-in-cheek than fact – although it does look the business with sports suspension and 'Monoblock VII' alloy wheels in a five double-spoke design – with Smart adding an artificially produced running sound to the car to replace the steady hum of the electric engine.
Interestingly, the makers have gone for a 'race car engine' sound but this can be replaced by virtually any sound in due course.
Of course it's a gimmick, but the electric car needs all the help it can get to grab headlines in the UK.
TechRadar sat down with Smart's Product Manager for Europe, Pitt Moos to discuss the company's love for the electric car and whether it was the right environment, with car manufacturers shutting here, there and everywhere, to unleash environmentally friendly automobiles into the market.
"Everyone laughed at the idea of a Smart Car when it first was announced that we wanted to do an ecological car. No one would touch us," explains Moos about Smart's humble beginnings 15 years ago.
"Then one of the oldest car manufacturers, and in some ways the most conservative, said yes to it."
That manufacturer was Mercedes-Benz, who announced a joint venture with the Swatch group (pre-Smart) in 1994.
It wasn't until late 1998 that the first Smart was launched, the Smart City Coupé, and since then the company has grown from strength to strength. But this hasn't been without some major set-backs on the way.
"We celebrated the millionth Smart car sale in September, which is great but we're not going to turn round and say we're a success story," says Moos rather candidly.
"We've been through hell but are starting to get towards heaven. For some years it looked likely we were going to get the axe. The workforce was cut back in 2005 from 1,500 to 600, but everyone got jobs in the end and the passion from the workers was still there."
And it's this enthusiasm that Moos believes has made Smart what it is today: "There's a lot of passion at Smart, and this brings a culture that doesn't always look to the rationale.
"Sure, people either love or hate the cars but for us that is a great thing, as you can discard the haters straight away and look to the fanbase and cater to their needs."
And what a fanbase Smart has at the moment. The Smart club – for owners of Smart cars – is the UK's second largest 'single marque' car club, with just Mini enthusiasts pipping Smart users to the number one spot.
This is a point that Moos re-iterates: "Our members club is one of the biggest of its type in the world. This culture perpetuates into our car manufacturing, and the Smart ED has come out of that culture."
The latest incarnation of the Smart electric car – the BRABUS – could be a game-changer in the electric car world.
With the UK government looking to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent in 2050, everyone has to seriously think about the way they can reduce their carbon footprint, and electric cars seem a logical step towards this.
There are limitations with the electric car that Smart knows only too well, but they do a pretty good job of turning the negatives into positives.
Throw the accusation at them that electric cars can only go 70 miles maximum on a single charge, and they reply that 75% of all compact cars are used for travelling to work or shopping on a daily basis.
Query the lack of power in a Smart and they'll point to how much fun the car is to drive – this is all to do with the battery pack being in the floor, making a better centre of gravity.
Couple this with the fact that you can get the equivalent to 300Mph to the gallon and electric cars start to make a little bit of sense.
TechRadar managed to test drive the Smart ED (Electric Drive) which has been given a limited rollout of 100 for select members of the public to use (government officials, lecturers etc) and we were genuinely surprised by how well it ran.
Despite expecting it to be an experience akin to driving a milk-float, the drive was smooth and there was actual power when you put your foot down. Getting to 0-30 takes around 6.5 seconds, with a top speed of 60Mph.
The lack of engine noise did lead us to think we were constantly stalling but, hey, the BARBUS' 'fake racing car noise' will soon put a stop to that.
"The next batch of 100 eco cars aren't about testing the car," explained Moos when we asked about the next-gen of EDs (due at the end of 2009). "We want to test the customer."
When asked whether the biggest hurdle to get over for electric car manufacturing was the technology or the consumer, it was agreed that a lot needs to be done to sway consumer opinion away from petrol-based vehicles.
Mercedes-Benz has released a number of cars to ease the consumer into eco-aware car consumption. Straying from the ED is the Smart 'FourTwo cdi' – a diesel-based car that currently boasts the world's lowest CO2 emissions for an automobile.
But it's electric vehicles that are favoured for the future, with champions like London Mayor Boris Johnson, saying recently: "It is absolutely fantastic to see manufacturers like Smart leading the way to make the electric vehicle an easy choice for Londoners."
London could be one of the biggest trend-setters for the electric car, with a multitude of benefits set to come to owners. Enticements like the lack of Congestion Charge, free parking and the fact it costs around £1 to charge the battery could sway urbanites to go electric.
The heart of the electric car is indeed the battery. Recently Smart announced a link-up with Tesla to produce batteries for the Smart range. Tesla is a big name in the electric car world. Its CEO is ex-PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, so the company isn't exactly short of money, and its Tesla Roadster shows that even sports cars can benefit from electric technology.
Using lithium-ion technology, early prototypes has the batteries running to a range of 100Mph, but this all comes at a cost; something that will need to be reduced if mass-market appeal it to happen.
But when can we expect this mass rollout? "With the electric car, we are currently doing tests in London, Rome, Paris and the United States," explained Moos, "we are looking to going into full production by 2012."
It's quite an apt time for mass production of the electric car, considering the Olympics are set for that year.
To go from 100 electric Smart cars in the world to this sort of availability will take an Olympic-sized effort from Mercedes-Benz, but Moos is extremely confident that the Smart brand is the brand to guide the automobile in the UK to an eco world.
"What we are doing at Smart is important. As our CEO once said: if the Smart car wasn't invented 10 years ago, then it would have to be invented now."