Taking the cheapest electric car in the US for a test drive

Want a cheap, small, eco-friendly convertible? You're in luck: the 2014 Smart ForTwo is the smallest, shortest plug in electric car sold in the country. But the question remains--what does it feel like in the driver's seat?

Tyrone Siu/Reuters/File
A sign is painted on a parking space for electric cars inside a car park in Hong Kong. The 2014 Smart ForTwo is the smallest, shortest, and cheapest electric car sold in the US.

With minimal changes from the model launched last year as the least expensive electric car in the U.S., the 2014 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive remains the smallest and shortest plug-in electric car sold in the U.S.--as well as the only one offered as a convertible.

The two-seat electric Smart comes not only as a three-door hatchback but also as a Cabriolet model with a folding cloth roof that can be rolled back partway like a large sunroof, or dropped all the way down to sit in a pile at the rear of the car just behind the driver's shoulders.

It may be winter now, but if you're craving open-air motoring when the sun shines--and want to keep it all-electric--the Smart Electric Drive is your sole option.

On the road, the electric version of the Smart ForTwo is really what the car should have been from the start: smooth, relatively quiet, and fairly quick away from stops because its electric motor develops maximum torque as soon as it begins to rotate.

MORE: 2013 Smart Electric Drive: Drive Video From NY Auto Show

It's a heavier car, at roughly 2,000 pounds, than the gasoline Smart, but far smoother since it dispenses with that car's jerky automated manual gearbox and delivers its electric power in one smooth surge.

The 2014 Smart Electric Drive has its 17.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack between the two layers of the sandwich floor.

That means its weight is carried down low in the chassis, which makes the car handle well and corner flat.

A full recharge if the battery pack is entirely depleted takes 6 hours, using the car's onboard 3.3-kW charger and a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station, but recharging from 20 to 80 percent takes only 3.5 hours.

The 55-kilowatt (74-horsepower) electric drive motor powers the rear wheels, sitting where the 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine of regular Smart cars would be located.

The EPA rates the electric Smart's battery range at 68 miles--more than the Mitsubishi i-MiEV's 62 miles, but less than the 84 miles of the 2014 Nissan Leaf, the best-selling battery-electric car in the U.S.

Visually, there's little difference between the two cars if you avoid the $900 Kinetic Green appearance package that gives you a green-on-white color combination unique to the electric version.

Inside, the Smart's interior is now seriously outdated and severe, although you'll find it adequate for around-town use. The electric Smart uses its two dash-top gauge pods for state-of-charge and power-delivery gauges unique to the battery-powered version.

MORE: 2013 Smart Electric Drive Test: Lowest-Priced Electric Car In U.S.

There's plenty of room inside, even for two adults well over six feet tall, and both passengers sit relatively high, reducing the sense of being in a small car.

If you're not aware that the Smart ends less than 2 feet behind your back, it doesn't drive as small as it actually is--until you park it in a space better suited to a motorcycle than a car.

Aided by its remarkably low lease price--$139 per month if you opt for the Battery Assurance Plus battery-lease program, as almost all customers do--the electric Smart has sold in decent numbers given the small size of the two-seat car market in the U.S.

Since sales of last year's model began in May, Smart has managed to deliver a total of 923 electric ForTwos--or roughly 10 percent of the 9,264 Smarts sold altogether.

If you choose not to lease, the electric Smart's prices begin at $25,750 for the hardtop and $28,750 for the Cabriolet. Both prices are before any incentives, and include the mandatory delivery fee.

The current 2014 model is close to the end of its run, however. An all-new two-seat Smart ForTwo will be introduced later this year, the first complete redesign of the iconic urban car in about 15 years.

That model will continue to be offered in gasoline and electric versions (and perhaps a diesel for Europe as well), and it will spawn other models, including a four-seat Smart ForFour and likely a very small Smart crossover utility vehicle as well.

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