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Smart Plugs Into Big Apple

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Smart plugs into Big Apple - in the Chronicle Herald, Halifax, June 8, 2010BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The last time I drove a Smart fortwo, back in January, it was bittercold and you drove hours before seeing another vehicle, let alone people in the vastexpanse of the Canadian Arctic.This time it was blistering hot and humid and I was on the narrow and uber-crowded streetsof this city where inches separate you from the next human. Just as different as the localeand circumstances, were the Smarts I was driving. As much as the three-cylinderconventional version was out of its element in the wide-open high-speed expanse of theGreat White North, the electric Smart driven here was where it belongs.The Smart was originally conceived as a commuter car, a conveyance for two people incrowded urban environments. Its relatively roomy interior belied its diminutive exteriormaking it easy to manoeuvre and park in tight spaces. The small size and light weightallowed the use of a fuel sipping little engine with very low emissions — just the ticket forcity life. Another key aspect of that original development plan was the use of hybrid drive orelectric motors. But with those technologies taking longer to reach an acceptable level, aninternal combustion engine was pressed into service. Now that battery technology hasadvanced, Mercedes engineers have given the little Smart an electric drive system. Theresult is a perfect fit.The problem with electric drive systems is range — as much as 150-km on paper and inmarketing bumph for the best to date, but a more realistic 75-100 in real-world conditionswith traffic, air conditioning or heater in play. No problem if you live in a crowded urbancenter or have a short drive to commuter rail or bus station. An electric vehicle may not bethe perfect vehicle for that 300-km flog to the weekend cottage or visiting the grandparents,but it clearly outshines that big gas hog for the other 90 per cent of the time when you haveshort trips to work or for shopping.The Smart fortwo electric drive was developed for this very scenario. In fact, Phil Moos,product manager for the vehicle, can see a fleet of Smarts in most major cities, many ofthem available for daily rental or in fleets where you pay a monthly fee for access to onewithout the worry of maintenance, depreciation or the other headaches associated withvehicle ownership.This complete departure from the norm is seen to be in touch with the desires and lifestylesof a new generation of young adults as well as a group at the other end of the age scalefolks who only need a vehicle on occasion. That is the reason Mercedes chose this locationfor the global reveal of the Smart electric drive. Stand on a sidewalk here and you areimmediately reminded of Sesame Street.The vast majority of people are young adults with a heavy incidence of young children. Theyuse a vast public transit system to get to and from work., there is very little parking spaceand corner grocery stores, bakeries, delicatessens, fruit and vegetable stands everywhere —ideal for a very small electric car like this.Fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen are seen as the ultimate solution. But thetechnology and necessary refuelling infrastructure are a ways off. Electric outlets areeverywhere — and easy to install where needed. Thus, the move to plug-in electric vehicleslike this one, the Nissan Leaf and others arriving in the next year or so. Smart engineerssay one issue to be resolved in the coming months as more electric vehicles come tomarket is a common charging station.The SAE has already established a standard for the plug to be used in all markets aroundthe world, whether to access 110 or 220-volts. The former is common in North Americahouseholds as is 220 volts for clothes dryers and stoves. Much of Europe and Asia use 220-volt outlets for everything. Batteries like those in the Smart electric drive can be rechargedfrom both, but the 220 outlets cut the recharge time in half.Moos says you can drive the Smart electric drive during the day and recharge at night"when utilities are begging you to use their power, when they have electricity coming outtheir ears"So what is it like to drive?Think of a very sophisticated golf cart. Get in, turn a key, put it in drive, press on theaccelerator and you have instant acceleration — impressive acceleration because electricmotors generate their maximum power or torque from idle; in this case, 30 KW or about 41horsepower and 89 lb. ft. of torque. Obviously, the system is much more complex than a golfcart but you get the drift.Here, a few blocks from a bridge or short ferry ride across the East River to Manhattan, theSmart electric drive scoots through congested streets and around double-parked deliveryvehicles with complete ease. It is all but silent, with the whine of the electric motor evidentonly if there is a pause in the blaring of horns and general racket that is part of this scene.Aside from the instant and impressive power and complete lack of sound, there is no otherreminder you are in anything but a conventional Smart fortwo. A quick peak at theinstruments serves to remind you of the rate you are using electricity and the amountremaining in the 16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack beneath your butt where the fuel tank islocated in the IC Smart. The conventional transmission lever activates a single-gear drivesystem. Put it in reverse and the electric motor simply turns in the other direction.With all that weight positioned as low as possible the center of gravity is also low, endowingthe Smart electric drive with cat-like prowess when it comes time to dodge a pothole orwayward pram pushed out between cars in the middle of the block.How many? Originally, 250 for North America and 45 for Canada, the majority in Torontoand Vancouver.How much? To be determined, but look for the Smart electric drive to be available onlythrough a closed-end, four-year lease for about $600 a month with $2,500 down. Mercedeswants to monitor this initial batch of 1,000 units very closely and by retaining ownership andgetting them back after four years of normal use they can learn a great deal. Seriesproduction will begin in 2012.With congestion and pollution such a major issue in cities today, pollution-free small carslike this are surely the way of the future in cities like Montreal, Toronto, Calgary andVancouver, and even smaller cities without a decent public transit system.Richard Russell owns and operates Advanced Driving Concepts. He is chairman for AJAC’sCanadian Car of the Year and is past-president of the Automobile Journalists Association ofCanada ( russell@advanceddriving.com)

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