I have always liked the idea of the Smart car, but for mighty Mercedes-Benz it's been a bottomless pit that has incinerated billions of dollars.
BMW went with the Mini, which is more than three feet longer than a Smart, and hit a home run selling more than twice as many Minis as Smarts and at much higher prices, too.
But now Smart has released the version that it was intended to be in the first place – an all-electric Smart with Mini-like acceleration, handling and performance. It is a vast improvement over gas- or diesel-powered Smarts that were noisy, nasty and slow. This latest version, which will be on sale in Canada next year, has an electric motor that delivers power at two levels. Accelerate in a normal fashion and it puts out 47 hp and instant torque; however if you really boot it, the motor delivers all 74 hp, which just about pins you back in your seat.
Another great advantage of the Smart going electric is that it gets rid of that awful semi-automatic transmission that guaranteed jerky starts. This one is smooth and silent; the handling is sports-car-like and is a lot of fun to drive. I'd take it in a drag race with a Mini any day.
But having said all this, it doesn't answer the question of whether they'll suddenly be able to sell enough of the things to make Smart economically viable for the long haul. There have only been a few brief moments of profitability for Smart since its launch in 1998 and it has never hit its target of selling 200,000 a year. And cheap they're not. The Smart electric drive goes on sale in Canada in the spring of 2013 with the Coupe starting at $26,990 and the Cabrio at $29,990 – if you're lucky, you may get a provincial rebate to lessen the pain.
Well, Smart has done some thinking about this and "selling" Smarts is only one way they want to move the mini-Mini car out the door. Surveys show the twentysomethings are more interested in buying the latest smart phone that forking out serious dough for a car, even a Smart car. All cars, say Gen Y, are polluting beasts that may be used when necessary but not owned and certainly not admired. If the Beach Boys launched their car songs today, they'd be a bust.
So enter Daimler's car2go. It's a car-sharing scheme with some interesting wrinkles. First, you can rent them by the minute. Find one on the street or locate it through your smart phone, flash your card at it and the doors open and away you go. Park it anywhere within the car2go zone, basically the city limits, and walk away. Car2go has a fleet of more than 4,000 Smart fortwo vehicles (including 625 electric drive cars) in 11 cities worldwide including Vancouver, and it's coming to Toronto and Calgary next year.
Daimler's going after this rent-by-the-minute, free-floating car-share business big time. It plans to have 50 cities in Europe and 30 cities in North America with fleets by 2016. If you can't sell 'em, rent 'em – by the minute. In Vancouver, it's 35 cents a minute, or $12.99 an hour, or $65.99 a day (plus HST); the price includes fuel and insurance.
This is a big idea that might actually catch on and if they can get lots of the new electric smarts into the fleet I think it could add an important new element of mass urban transportation. One issue standing in the way of a mass roll-out of electrics is, of course, where do you charge them? Off a 220-volt charger it takes seven hours; off a 110-volt wall socket it would take 14 to 17 hours. All that charging gives you about 145 km of local emission-free driving.
I think a lot of people would get into electric motoring if they were only risking 35 cents a minute. It's better than taking a chance on purchasing the current generation of expensive batteries when something better and cheaper will no doubt come along soon. So, bravo, Smart electric and cars2go. Maybe Daimler can turn a sow's ear into a silk purse yet.