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Driving the E-Smart

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We've had our E-Smart (officially Smart Fortwo Electric Drive Cabriolet) for two months now, long enough to have had some experience with it. In short, we like it even more than we thought we would.

You can't just go out an buy one, however. It's not available for general sale. We're participating in a cooperation between Daimler and McDonald's Deutschland that lets us participate in a test of using E-Smarts in corporate fleets. We lease and insure direct from Daimler, and I won't mention the price since I'm not sure it's representative of any market price. It's safe to say it's our most expensive company car. (Update: The E-Smart FAQ at www.smart.de mentions a leasing rate of 700€ per month, plus VAT.)

The basic statistics: it has a range of 120 km on a full charge and a top speed of 100 km/h. It takes 8 hours to charge a completely empty battery at a standard 220V outlet, or 90 minutes at a high-voltage charging station. The proponents of electric mobility say these limitations are not limitations at all, that 99% of daily driving can be done without having to charge away from home. We've found that to be true, and our battery has never gone below 50%. When planning your trips, though, you're always keeping those limitations in mind, and we make sure it's always charged up. It's also a two-seater, so family trips are out.

We've found the E-Smart to be perfect for those short trips where gas and diesel are particularly inefficient. There's no warm-up time, the E-Smart is always ready to go. We live in the country, our grocery store is 3 km away, the school bus stop 4 km, Buchholz where we do most shopping 5 km. We can make those trips without feeling guilty at all.

As for driving, it sounds and feels like riding an elevator or driving a bumper car. It has a one-speed transmission, so it never shifts gears, you just step on the accelerator and it goes. It will never win any drag races pulling from a stop light. It has air conditioning and a good (but not great) sound system that plays MP3s. And we can put the top down, though with this year's German non-summer we've done that exactly once.

As for the operating costs, we've got a mini power-use counter on our outside outlet, so we know that we've driven about 2500 km on about 350 kWh. However, that does not count charges at the loading station in Rade (it's still in test and we aren't paying there yet). We pay about 23 cents per kWh for our eco-power at home, so that works out to about 3.25€ per 100 km, which I figure is about half of what gas or diesel would cost. So it's not only fun and ecological, it's inexpensive too*. (*Not considering the purchase price.)

Are electric cars the wave of the future? I don't know. The car itself has no emissions, but power generating plant may be nuclear or coal, so you're just moving the pollution to where you can't see it. The high purchase prices make them uneconomical for most people right now. And I'm not sure how electric mobility fits in an energy policy that stresses conservation (particularly in Germany, which is giving up nuclear power). The future may be in hybrids, or a technology not involving a heavy battery. But it's worth trying out and thinking about, and our decorated E-Smart is turning heads.

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