A Smart ED Goes in Brooklyn
By Bill Moore
Actually, about a dozen of them, to be more precise; smart, as in the two-seat microcar seen all over Europe and in the blockbuster movie, "The Davinci Code."
First introduced into the United States in 2008 by Roger Penske's Smart USA distributorship, the car is now sold through 77 dealerships -- with the 78th just announced for Puerto Rico -- including one here in Omaha. While the gasoline engine version is currently the only fuel type available here - you can buy the diesel edition in Canada -- that is about to change with the introduction of 250 electric-powered models starting late this year.
To get the publicity ball rolling, Smart, a division of Daimler, and Penske's Smart USA put a dozen of the cars at the disposal of invited journalists flown into New York for the occasion. The companies put us up in the luxury W Hotel in Hoboken, which is really a much nice community than its name suggests. In fact, I think the city fathers should consider changing the name to Manhattan West. Property values would soar.
The initial press briefing was held on a Hudson River water taxi that ferried Smart team members and the media from the New Jersey side of the river to DUMBO's (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) Pier 1 at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge on the East River, but not before first motoring slowly past the Statue of Liberty: what a glorious lady she is.
There below the Brooklyn Bridge awaited 12 white and green smart fortwo coupes and cabriolet models, tops down and ready to roll on what had to be about as perfect a day weather-wise as could be asked for. Smart also had gasoline models available for a second group of automotive journalists who were in town to preview the latest Mercedes-Benz models. The color of the dot on your name tag indicated which you were to drive. Mine was green; I drove the electric models.
Well, actually, I navigated. With my fullest apologies to my colleague, whose name I didn't take time to write down, he drove from the pier to the rendezvous point while I scrambled to find some directions on where we were supposed to go. Both of us were so excited to get the car on the road that neither of us bothered to ask directions. With several other smart EVs behind us, presumably thinking we knew where we were going, I finally found a map with our routes and the morning's destination marked on it: Bussaco's Restaurant on Union Street between 6th and 7th Avenue. Ten minutes later, we did a U-turn in the middle of Union and parked the car behind a row of orange traffic cones. This was my first indication of how nimble this little car can be.
As I got out of the car, I noticed that across the street was a firehouse: Squad Co. 1. Next to the open garage door, in which was parked a big red Seagraves pumper truck, was a life-sized wooden sculpture; a memorial to the 12 firefighters from this company lost that day in September 2001. [You can read more about this on If Only We Had Re-elected Jimmy Carter].
As other smart EVs arrived (actually, their official name is smart ED for electric drive), I walked into Bussacos to find drinks and rolls waiting. For some strange reason, I went with the iced coffee and a croissant coated in powered sugar: big mistake, it gets everywhere. We were ushered downstairs into a newly renovated room with white walls and white shag carpet for a briefing by Smart USA president Jill Lajdziak and VP of Business Development Derek Kaufman. Earlier during the water taxi ride on the Hudson, Smart's global brand manager, Marc Langenbrinck, had given his company's perspective on the introduction, which is part of a larger 1,500 vehicle roll-out globally. Video of all three presentations will shortly be available here on EV World. Hopefully, you won't get sea sick watching the water taxi segment.
With the briefings out of the way, we were encouraged to take a car and go for a spin. It was my turn to drive and my unnamed driving partner -- he didn't give me a business card and I was remiss in not writing his name down -- set off back down Union to follow the route laid out on the map.
Somewhere along 4th Avenue, the car seemed to be not very responsive; at one point it even refusing to move when I depressed the accelerator. I put in park and then back in drive and it worked again. Leery of being stuck out here in Brooklyn, we decided to return the car when we noticed the engine warning light had come on. We carefully nursed our way back to Bussacos and informed the Smart attendant that we'd had a problem with the car. What exactly had happened, I am not sure. They assigned us another car and away we went, zipping along with the traffic, ducting up streets reserved to bike lanes and double rows of parked cars: I am not sure what that's about. After a half hour of typical stop-and-go big city traffic, we wound our way back to the restaurant. I was pleased with the car's overall performance, but not enthralled. I'd prefer just a bit more acceleration zip. What it had was certainly adequate for this kind of traffic, but when smart had boasted about its ability to out accelerate your average foreign sports car, "leaving them at the light," I had expected a bit more.
As it turns out, I sat down for lunch with Marc Langenbrinck and had a chance to talk more about the car and smart's goals for it. This generation is the second, but not the last. The drive system was developed by Zytek and utilizes lithium ion batteries, replacing the sodium nickel chlorides of the first generation car. The 16.5kWh lithium ion pack gives it a range of up to 84 miles. Smart says they are trying to be conservative in their estimates. Langenbrinck explained that a third generation is in development and will rely on a larger OEM for the drive system. Also Renault and smart are collaborating on a four door version that will also be available in electric drive.
What I also learned was that the car also has a "kick it" mode that taps the motors full 30kW potential, accelerating the car from zero-to-60 km/h (37 mph) in 6.5 seconds: not Tesla Roadster performance, but acceptable… for now. Langenbrinck urged me to go back out and try the car again. I had 45 minutes before I had to catch the shuttle to the airport, so I climbed into another car, did U-turn in the street and headed up Union towards Prospect Park. I turned southwest on Prospect Park West and looked for a good place to test the car's acceleration. I found it on 9th Street. Twice I kicked it, meaning I slammed the pedal all the way to the floor, pass the notch that keeps the motor in the 20kW power range. The analog needle on the amp gauge spun to 30 and the car hit 60 km/h in 8 seconds by the stop watch on my Fossil chronograph. In a serious drag race of a stop light, I'd have hard time beating a Camaro, much less a Porsche, but 9th Street in Brooklyn isn't a drag strip, and this car isn't about stroking my vanity. It's about sensibly getting around a crowded urban environment where bicycles have their own lanes and pedestrians rule.
As I sat at a traffic light, a family on bicycles straddled their rides next to me, the little girl wearing her obligatory helmet. The passenger window was down, so I smiled and said, "this (the smart) is almost as green as your bicycle." The summer shift-glad lady smiled and said yes-- with a distinctive English accent -- but added that a bicycle is not so good when it rains. How true, but the sheer abundance of bike lanes I encountered in this part of Brooklyn suggests the denizens who live and work here have come to appreciate the simple, non-complex nature of this hundred year-old invention The trio later passed me as I sat at yet another light. At least the motor wasn't running, wasting gas like the millions of other car and trucks in the city. The step from a bike to a smart should be a easy one, though there is one HUGE problem with introducing any electric vehicle in Brooklyn: a place to plug it in.The Plug-It-In Connundrum
What is painfully obvious as you zip along the tree and car-lined streets of Brooklyn is that even if you wanted to lease a smart ($599 month for 48 months), you'd have a dickens of a time trying to charge it if you lived here. Apart from the open curb either side of a fire hydrant, there isn't an empty spot for blocks to park a car, any car. Every inch of curbing is taken by someone else's automobile and often they are two-deep: figure that one out. The only scheme that Marc Langebrinck and I could come up with was to allow smart lessees to pull the car onto the sidewalk next to their building, where most people place their trash cans or chain their bicycles. A smart fortwo would just fit, but they'd have to somehow keep others from blocking their access to the street. No, as wonderfully practical as the electric car is in this urban environment, solving the park 'n charge problem is going to take some major creativity; after all, unlike an electric bicycle, you can't simply disconnect the battery and carry it up to our apartment for an overnight recharge.
Maybe the answer isn't individual ownership, anyway. Maybe the answer is collective ownership, where an apartment block owns several smarts that are available on a first-come-first-drive basis with space reserved and monitored in front of the complex. That would certainly solve the parking and charging problem, and maybe reduce some of the car-clutter along those lovely shaded streets. That would certainly be the smart (fortwo) thing to do.
My third run around Brooklyn complete and trouble free, I handed the keys back to the Smart employee, grabbed my bag and prepared to head for JFK. This was my first time driving a smart car. I liked it. Sure the ride can be a bit brusk. What do you expect from such a short-coupled vehicle? It pretty much lived up to my expectations, with the exception of the first 'hiccup' and the not-all-that-memorable acceleration. This generation also has the tendency to free-wheel if you let off the brake, rolling back or forward depending on which side of the hill you're on. Langebrinck assured me that this would be resolved in Gen Drei. Other than this, the car is surprisingly roomy and, unlike the Tesla Roadster, easy for an old man like me to get into and out of with relative ease. Maybe, best of all, it sure beats riding a bicycle in the rain.
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