July 14, 2024

Behind the Wheel | Think City, Smart Fortwo ED and Mitsubishi i-MiEV: Electric, if Not Electrifying: Cars for Short-Range Commutes

IS there a need for a new breed of tiny gas-free commuter cars that match the old stereotypes of electric vehicles — that they are puny, plasticky and incapable of going very far?

In recent weeks I’ve driven three such vehicles, all smaller and less substantial than the well-publicized Nissan Leaf, an electric compact, and Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid with an electric engine to back up its batteries.

The three new entries — the Think City, the Smart Fortwo ED and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (to be renamed the “i”) — do not pretend to be all things for all drivers. But neither are they glorified golf carts or low-speed neighborhood vehicles like the ones seen in retirement communities.

Rather, they represent the emergence of a new segment: the electric commuter car. More are coming — from obscure start-ups like Wheego to industry stalwarts including Toyota.

Yet these electric commuters could also end up as a niche within a niche — overshadowed by more versatile and polished electric vehicles — before consumers have given them half a chance.

So the immediate question is this: Will enough Americans embrace cars sized and powered for a basic function — navigating congested urban traffic with one or two people on board — without insisting on capabilities they will seldom if ever use, like cross-country range and trailer-towing capacity?

The cars’ shapes are awkward and their names are somewhat silly: City? ED? Lowercase i? But all three are quite real, are all available to buy or lease (or soon will be) and all have some degree of highway functionality and big-boy features.

 While each has some desirable aspects, all are relatively expensive and none come remotely close to earning the title of “first great electric commuter car.” 

Here are some impressions:

Think City

I had a blast driving the Think City, the most engaging and spirited car of the trio. Part of the fun is that the City, rather than try to disguise its plasticness, fully embraces and celebrates its polymer grandeur.

The City is two feet longer than the minuscule Smart, and its body panels are made of recyclable plastic that resists scratches and dings. Its 37-kilowatt motor (equivalent to 50 horsepower) and 23-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack provide a surprisingly zippy drive, at least in the mostly stop-and-go traffic of the San Francisco Bay Area. I started to imagine the City as the runt nephew of the electric Tesla Roadster, especially when the canvas top was retracted.

The virtues of an electric car — swift, smooth and mostly silent operation — felt amplified relative to the expectation that the pint-size City would be underpowered. Heads turned on city streets and shook in surprise as it quickly bolted to 40 m.p.h. when the light turned green or zoomed to 70 m.p.h., its top speed, on the highway.

The Think City — a car born in Norway, previously assembled in Finland and now in production in Indiana — follows the same Scandinavia-to-America trajectory as Ikea furniture. Could anyone have predicted that unassembled goods designed for space-constrained urbanites would become a mainstream American home-furnishing outlet?

Yet Ikea thrives because it answers a need for cool-on-the-cheap. And if the City works in Oslo, where gas costs about $9 a gallon, then why not in New York or San Francisco, where the price at the pumps flirted with $5 a gallon this year and parking is scarce?

Unlike Ikea’s bookshelves, the Think City doesn’t require assembly, but evidence of its hand-wrought quality is abundant. Welding marks are visible on hinges and seams. Rain had apparently seeped through the hatch of the test car; the hinge bolts had rusted. The bargain-bin radio seemed wedged into the dashboard, and the drop-down cup holders were asking to be broken off.

None of that mattered to me, because I was having so much fun darting between lanes, zipping across the Golden Gate or cruising the hipper quarters of Berkeley. The City’s entire back hatch is glass, affording excellent visibility.

The hand-assembled feel was only the first item on my long list of gripes. The quiet of the electric motor in city driving was interrupted by buzzes, hums and burps from the mechanical systems. On the highway, the motor’s whine varied from something like a small jet engine to a dentist’s drill.

The dashboard conveniently displayed the battery state-of-charge as a percentage number — the most useful metric — but the other power meters were superfluous at best.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=db770dc56527118709b6a5399d29e717

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