Has Smart’s use of an electric powertrain in the Forfour brought us the perfect urban EV?

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The Government’s announcement of its timescale for the phasing out of new cars powered solely by normal combustion engines is likely to have changed a few people’s outlook on the electric vehicle.

Until now, you might have considered EVs to be interesting if immature alternatives to ‘normal’ cars, entirely pointless irrelevances doomed to obscurity, or something in between.

Charging port is at the rear but will only take a Type 2 seven-pin socket for a maximum rate of 7kW. Three-phase AC fast charging will be added later

But now, with one eye on that 2040 deadline, you are unlikely to consider them unimportant.

It’s a good time, then, to update ourselves on the pace of progress in the EV market – and to see how well a current electric powertrain can be deployed in a car serving a brief different from that of a typical five-door family hatchback, big-selling supermini, fast luxury saloon or SUV.

The Smart Forfour Electric Drive is plainly intended to broaden the reach of the EV rather than necessarily transform its sales success – perhaps finally to be that perfect vehicular urbanite which zero-emissions technology always seemed fated to provide.

Although it’s actually a fourth-generation electric Smart car, this is the first four-seat Smart EV and comes to market as part of a three-pronged assault alongside Electric Drive versions of the Smart Fortwo Coupé and Smart Fortwo Cabriolet.

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Smart’s unswerving focus on urban mobility remains a defining strength for the brand, and it has been using electric powertrains to make its cars even better suited to city motoring since 2007. But this is the first time we’ve run the road test ruler over one of them – or, indeed, any version of the current Forfour.

If a modern zero-emissions powertrain can already make for a better modern Smart car, it might not be too far away from the maturity needed for it to make all kinds of small cars better than their piston-engined equivalents.

Time to find out just how big an ‘if’ that is.


Smart Forfour Electric Drive rear

Daimler’s joint venture with Renault has split its Smart brand’s production base once again, the two-seat Smart Fortwo Coupé and Cabriolet being built at its long-time factory in Hambach, Germany, but its four-seat Forfour being made in Renault’s Novo Mesto plant in Slovenia alongside the related Renault Twingo.

Unlike its direct predecessor, though, the Forfour is ostensibly a stretched Fortwo. At just under 3.5m in length, it’s small even by city car standards – just as you’d hope a Smart would be – and because its front wheels are unencumbered by having an engine stuck in between them, it also has a 9.1m turning circle, which is a good 10 percent tighter than the average supermini’s.

When you unlock the car, the ECU automatically terminates any charging session — annoying when you’re only halfway through a 45-minute package-priced charge

Where piston-engined Forfours are concerned, customers can choose between 70bhp 1.0-litre normally aspirated, 89bhp turbocharged 0.9-litre and 108bhp 0.9-litre turbo petrol engines – all of them cradled underneath the boot floor and driving the rear wheels.

In this Electric Drive version, the space the petrol engine would otherwise occupy is taken by an 80bhp, 118lb ft AC synchronous electric motor, which drives the rear wheels through reduction gearing.

The motor draws its power from a lithium ion drive battery housed under the cabin floor, with 17.6kWh of storage in all.

That’s slightly less than you get in a Volkswagen e-up and quite a lot less than you get in the base-level Renault Zoe.

Range is claimed to be 95 miles on the notoriously unreliable NEDC driving cycle test – not exactly stellar by EV standards. Then again, if any kind of electric car can carry off a limited battery range, it’ll be an urban specialist like a Smart.

Suspension – overhauled significantly for the launch of the current Fortwo and Smart Forfour – is via front MacPherson struts and a rigid rear axle that is similar in concept to a torsion beam set-up but tailored to suit the Smart’s particular packaging and its need to accommodate rear-wheel drive.

Coil springs are standard, while the car comes on 15in alloy wheels of mixed rim widths, although our test car came on optional, wider 16s.

The published kerb weight for the Forfour Electric Drive is 1200kg on the nose, making the car 225kg heavier than the equivalent 1.0-litre Forfour but marginally lighter than the e-Up. It is still unquestionably a very heavy city car, then, but not exceptionally so.


Smart Forfour Electric Drive interior

The location of the original Smart car’s engine, immediately over the rear wheels, allowed a cabin big enough for two adults and a surprisingly usable boot to sit atop a wheelbase of well under 1.9m. Add another 800mm of wheelbase length and a second row of seats to that and you get a much more usable four-seater than many would imagine – albeit one still deliberately pitched
on the compact size of the most compact new car class in Europe.

Most larger adults will find adequate space for a comfortable driving position, although it’s necessarily a fairly perched one.

The Smart’s two Readyspace rear seats had cushions that flip over so you can carry bikes and the like, with a removable storage box in between

The steering column is fixed, but there’s a generous amount of head room up front and a driver’s seat that adjusts vertically as well as longitudinally and for backrest angle. Some drivers will find the analogue speedometer is obscured by the steering wheel if they sit as high as they’d ideally like to, so the lowest, most straight-legged sitting position possible is usually the best one to adopt.

And although that kind of driving position must have a knock-on effect on available second-row passenger space in a car this small, what it leaves is actually a pair of pleasingly full-sized individual back seats.

The seat cushions are short and the cabin floor high (which leaves your thighs floating slightly awkwardly in mid-air when you’re sitting back there) but there’s just about enough space for modest-sized adults and growing teenagers on short trips.

Head room back there is a bit mean by class standards, but the Smart Forfour actually offers more typical rear leg room than a Vauxhall Viva.

Smart’s apparent standard on material finish and perceived quality is less commendable. You might imagine a premium-priced city car would impress on this, but the Forfour’s classier features (heater controls, stylised air vents) are easily outnumbered by the number of areas where the interior looks and feels cheap.

Too many of the cabin plastics are hard and plain, an exposed wiring harness is visible in the passenger footwell and screwheads are on show here and there – all of which promotes a more low-rent ambience than is befitting.

Like the Renault Twingo, the Smart Forfour uses a Renault-sourced infotainment system that pre-dates the French maker’s latest portrait-orientated R-Link 2 systems.

It’s a 7.0in landscape-orientated touchscreen system with TomTom-branded navigation, Bluetooth and MirrorLink smartphone compatibility but none of the other Apple or Android mirroring standards.

The system’s responsiveness and general intuitive usability have come in for criticism on these pages before.

Tasks that are commonly required and simple to achieve on other systems — such as turning off auto zoom or changing map orientation on the navigation system — require penetrating through several menu levels and some annoying scrolling.

Mapping detail and resolution are poor and routes can take quite some time to plot, although you can input addresses via voice control.

The audio system quality is only okay, and the omission of DAB radio as standard means you often resort to the car’s AM radio, the reception quality of which is also quite poor.


Smart Forfour Electric Drive side profile

The Forfour Electric Drive’s powertrain gives it relatively strong and typically smooth performance where it really needs it.

It doesn’t match bigger and more expensive battery cars for outright torque or easy acceleration, and among the rivals offering markedly more instant pulling power is the Volkswagen e-up.

Rear suspension doesn’t deal with transmission bumps at all well, allowing the rear tyres to skip and stability to be affected

Still, there is a decent turn of speed here, more than you’ll find in some city cars, up to the kind of pace that you’d imagine city cars will see only rarely.

The 13.2sec the Forfour needs to hit 60mph from rest is almost 4.5sec less than was required by the related 1.0-litre Renault Twingo we tested, and the electric Smart beats its petrol-powered cousin by a similar margin from 30-70mph.

The 1.0-litre Vauxhall Viva is narrowly quicker than the Smart over both measures, though. That’s hardly a surprise, because, from the Forfour’s driver’s seat and beyond about 50mph at least, you wouldn’t say the car felt swift.

When straining along a motorway slip road or pulling out to overtake above 60mph, the Smart is quite plainly slow and feels almost vulnerably so at times.

Up to 40mph, though, it is quite punchy – quicker than that petrol-powered 1.0 Viva – and feels fleet and responsive enough to outsprint most city traffic.

Coasting and regenerative braking could be handled better. The Forfour features a radar-guided battery energy regeneration system. In normal operating mode, it should coast when you lift off the accelerator pedal and the road ahead of you is clear, but when there’s traffic ahead, it should automatically regenerate down to the prevailing speed of the car in front.

In practice, the system doesn’t work brilliantly and can make the Smart’s off-throttle behaviour unpredictable. Select Eco mode and the radar trickery is disabled, allegedly giving you maximum battery regeneration as soon as you lift off but also leaving the brake pedal inconsistent in its feel and its progressiveness.

All things considered, the business of interacting with an electric powertrain, and of getting the best efficiency out of it, isn’t made as easy in this car as it is in other EVs. 


Smart Forfour Electric Drive cornering

Smart cars stack a tall, upright cabin on top of a chassis that’s short in the wheelbase, narrow in its track widths and necessarily quite crude in places – hence some obvious compromises in the way these cars have gone down the road for the past two decades.

Even here, with the longer wheelbase of the four-seater and a handy lowering of the centre of gravity brought about by the battery positioning, you can’t miss the dynamic quirks and shortcomings.

Picking up the apex means doing a lot with the steering, although body roll isn’t that pronounced. ESP prevents throttle-on understeer on the exit

The steering is unusually low-geared and light at the rim. It’s that way as a gesture to make the car easy to manoeuvre around junctions and into tight spaces – but the Smart Forfour doesn’t always feel that way because of the amount of arm twirling needed to make your way around a multi-storey car park or in and out of a parking space.

That 9.1m turning circle is certainly handy at parking time but doesn’t seem a massive improvement on what most city cars need when it comes to it. If anything, the car feels slightly less wieldy than the class average.

At higher speeds, meanwhile, you begin to feel the effect of the Smart’s rearward weight distribution: the stability-biased geometry settings of its chassis and the unsprung mass and coarseness of that rear axle.

While the extra weight of the Forfour Electric Drive’s battery does seem to add a note of calm to the car’s ride compared with that of other Forfours we’ve tested, it remains restless and unsettled over larger intrusions and noisy and abrupt over smaller, sharper ones.

Handling response is below par, too, with grip balanced in such a way as to keep the weight-bearing rear wheels from ever being overloaded with grip. Lateral body control is actually a good deal better than you’d expect it to be, and the car’s electronic stability control is tuned for subtle, almost imperceptible intrusions as the car starts to understeer – which it does only when you begin to push quite hard.

And yet you can’t help but conclude that the Forfour’s hold on the tarmac is notably more slight than that of most city cars – although its stability is never really in question.

A battery that empties its charge at an alarming rate is just one more reason you’d be unlikely to drive a Forfour quickly by choice.

Grip and handling in extremis are just about good enough to count as competent, though, and the car relies on a well-tuned stability control system that is always on and keeps a lid on throttle-on understeer without feeling like it’s intervening much.

You can carve a fairly fast line through a corner and still make the apex, at least on the optional 16in rims of our test car, which can be imagined to have better grip levels than standard.

Come back onto the accelerator on the way out and the traction and stability controls are very proactive, so it’s easy to drive up to the car’s dynamic limits — as meek as they may be. Deliberately unload the rear axle mid-corner with weight transfer and the stability control chimes in more abruptly but ultimately does its job.


Smart Forfour Electric Drive

On the face of it, the Forfour Electric Drive does seem to add to the choice available at the most affordable end of the electric car market – and its sub-£17,000 asking price (after the £4500 government ULEV grant) is worthy of some recognition.

But that showroom price plays against residual values that are still very poor for battery cars across the board and continue to make a mockery of the idea of an affordable EV for most buyers.

Painful, no matter how you look at the residuals, but the Smart edges out the VW e-Up and comfortably beats Renault’s Zoe

Smart’s own introductory PCP deal on the car puts it at £269 a month over three years after a £2000 deposit, and although there’s no battery lease to worry about here, you could still get into a facelifted Volkswagen e-Golf for the same outlay. A 41kWh Renault Zoe is cheaper, even accounting for £59 a month to lease the battery.

Our testing shone a harsh light on the Smart’s 95-mile claimed battery range. The best range we could produce was 68 miles by employing a gentle touring driving style.

That’s poor by current EV class standards, and dropping to about 50 miles when you’re not so careful could be hard to tolerate even for drivers who never stray beyond the city limits.

Smart’s initial lack of provision for fast charging of this car is also disappointing.

Our Forfour test car could charge at 7kW AC only and would have needed 90 minutes on a typical 32-amp motorway services charger to be taken from empty to full. Smart is planning to introduce three-phase AC charging as an option later this year, but the infrastructure necessary to make that work on a longer trip must be expected to be sparse at best. 



2.5 star Smart Forfour Electric Drive

The electric car’s cause has been advanced a long way over the past few years by some innovative, desirable and genuinely usable cars, such as the BMW i3, Volkswagen e-Golf and latest Renault Zoe.

But regrettably, the Forfour Electric Drive isn’t a car to rank alongside those trailblazers.

Underwhelming electric makeover fails to improve a troubled city car

Its ambitions and capacities are clearly limited by its size and price; but even taking clear account of that, this car is a world away from the perfect downsized urban EV we’d hoped it might be.

The reasons for this are many – and lots of them aren’t particular to the electrically propelled version of the Forfour. The car’s ride and handling are plainly flawed even by city car standards, while its cabin is quite spacious but isn’t finished or equipped to a standard commensurate with its price, and its performance, although respectable, lacks the energetic thrust we’ve come to expect from the modern electric breed.

Combine all that with less than convincing cost-of-ownership and usability arguments and you end up struggling to find a really good reason to recommend this car.

Which is why we could only see the Forfour bettering the Peugeot iOn in our top five, but failing to keep hold of the tailcoats of the Volkswagen e-up, Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe.

Smart Forfour Electric Drive 2017-2019 First drives