Electric crossover represents a total reinvention of its maker. Is it a successful one?

Why we’re running it: To see if a bright future lies ahead for the Smart brand reinvented under Geely

Month 1 - Specs

Life with a Smart #1: Month 1

Welcoming the #1 to the fleet - 

Here's something I bet you never expected in Autocar: a magic trick. I'm going to say a word and then tell you what you saw in your mind's eye. Ready? Smart. Now, if you say you didn't see a quirky two-seater, I know you're lying.

The point I'm trying to make isn't that I should have reinvented myself as The Wondrous Wilberforce but that the public perception of the Smart brand is set in stone.

So when it unveiled the bulbous Concept #1 (pronounced hashtag one', regrettably) at the Munich motor show in 2021, it took us all a bit by surprise.

Yes, it had gone off-piste before - creating a roadster and modifying a Mitsubishi Colt to create a four-seat supermini-but never to such an extent.

With a stylish look that showed its Mercedes-Benz design studio origins, this electric crossover was certainly eye-catching. The question was whether Smart could keep it that way for production. Well, the car you see here is the result: welcome to Smart 2.0.

When the #1 arrived on our shores last summer, Smart Europe CEO Dirk Adelmann hailed it as "the nucleus of all things to come". Without wanting to lose any momentum, and before the #1 had even made it onto UK roads, Smart quickly revealed the #3.

Basically a stretched #1 in a similar vein to how the Volkswagen ID 4 grows on the ID 3, this SUV cemented Smart's new, reinvented look - and, more importantly, challenged how as a brand it would be perceived by the public: no longer a maker of quirky two-seaters.

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Anyway, what we have here is Smart's electric reawakening. This is the brand's first new model since Geely - the Chinese giant that sold 1.7 million cars last year - took a 50% stake back in 2019. In fact, it is the first new model to wear a Smart badge in a whole decade.

Given that its unrelated to the old EQ Fortwo and EQ Forfour, it is a chance for the brand to break into the EV mainstream and become more than a creator of upmarket city cars.

The #1 is not quite a conventional hatchback and not quite a typically SUV-like crossover (very much like the now-renamed Ora Funky Cat we ran on our fleet previously) - a weird straddling of segments that IS becoming increasingly popular.

It is positioned as a premium crossover rivalling the Renault Mégane E-Tech and Kia Niro EV, with an emphasis on maximising interior space. In terms of design, this is a car of two halves: designed by Mercedes as is quite clear from the E-Class-esque, metal-plated interior) and engineered by Geely.

That last part is important: the #1 is the hrst Europe-bound EV to use Geely's new SEA architecture (heralded by the Chinese-market Zeekr 001 shooting brake). This will also underpin the EX30, Volvo's entry-level, £33,000 EV that is expected to do very well when it arrives later this year.

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So well, indeed, that Smart recently announced a new entry-level #1 Pro model with a smaller (49kWh) battery and fewer features. Our car is the Premium, the top trim available before you hit the speed-crazed Brabus, which adds a second motor for 422bhp, 400lb ft of torque and 0-62mph in just 3.9sec.

For £38,950, the 268bhp Premium gives you 273 miles of range (thanks to efficiency of 3.7mpkWh) from a 66kWh battery, 150kW fast charging, a 12.8in touchscreen, a heat pump (of huge importance given the British climate), a plush interior and a host of safety features and other (hopefully) helpful technology. It really does feel very Mercedes.

On face value alone, and with the current costs of EVs considered, it seems pretty good value to me. But it will be behind the wheel, over the coming months, where the all-important questions will be answered. One of those key ones: could this car replace a combustion-engined Mercedes A-Class?

First driving impressions are, well, mixed. The #1 is a hoot in the corners, it's great around town and it just feels all-round composed. However, the strength of its regenerative braking (even in its lowest setting; it can't be turned off) gives the car a one-pedal driving feel, which will take some getting used to.

Like its Swedish sibling, the #1 relies heavily on its touchscreen, so much so that it is even needed to adjust the door mirrors, and that means traversing three menus.  Those of you who have seen Matt Prior's YouTube review of the EX30 will understand my frustrations.

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And I haven't even spoken about the quirky indicator sounds yet. More on that to come.

In sum, then: this 1s a good-looking, handily sized EV that's well suited to a small, modern-thinking, tech-savvy family, with enough range for a week of city living and school runs, plus a few longer commutes.

So it's rather unfortunate that I am at the other end of the spectrum, with a 130-mile run to the office and back. I'm not expecting to go two days without charging it, given how range-killing motorways can be.

How the #1 handles that and how much range it sheds will be something to note closely. It will be especially interesting to see how much using the heat pump preserves the miles. I have heard good things already.

So, watch this space, reader. Putting my few initial concerns aside, it seems that the #1 is a car with a lot to offer, and I have high hopes that it can deliver. Everyday usability will be the key. Like, I suppose, the Smart of old.

Second Opinion

It has taken me a while to figure out why I’m a bit lukewarm on the #1. After all, there is a lot to recommend it: price, range, space, equipment and more. It’s just a bit bland across the board – a bit appliancey. That’s fine, but it does mean that the handful of annoyances and drivability issues grate all the more.

Illya Verpraet

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Smart #1 Premium specification

Specs: Price New £38,950 Price as tested £38,950 Options None

Test Data: Engine Permanent-magnet synchronous motor Power 268bhp Torque 253lb ft Kerb weight 1725kg Top speed 112mph 0-62mph 6.7sec Efficiency 3.7mpkWh CO2 0g/km Faults None Expenses None

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Will Rimell

Will Rimell
Title: Deputy news editor

Will is a journalist with more than eight years experience in roles that range from news reporter to editor. He joined Autocar in 2022 as deputy news editor, moving from a local news background.

In his current role as deputy news editor, Will’s focus is with Autocar and Autocar Business; he also manages Haymarket's aftermarket publication CAT.

Writing is, of course, a big part of his role too. Stories come in many forms, from interviewing top executives, reporting from car launches, and unearthing exclusives.

Join the debate

Add a comment…
AndyT57 30 March 2024

With reference to your complaint about the wing mirrors, have you not found profiles?  I am 5ft9 and my wife is 5ft4.  Setting our profiles means that we can set the seat position, wing mirror position and HUD position so suit each of us.  So when either of us gets in the car we just select our profile and adjust the rear view mirror.  And if we drove the car last we just press the brake pedal to restore our profile.  It couldn't be more simple.    

LP in Brighton 11 March 2024

Surely this needs a new brand name. Smart has established its reputation selling cheap and cheerful, quirky two-seaters that the transition to a five seat relatively expensive EV will not be easy. And right now there is a potential large market for any maker that can offer a small affordable electric car, which maybe is where Smart should be focused. 

catnip 11 March 2024

One of the big advantages of an electric vehicle for me would be a nice open, flat floored front compartment, giving a welcome feel of spaciousness. Why have Smart filled it with such a big, ugly plastic barrier?