We drive the Smart electric

A Smart electric "fortwo" is seen in its native bucolic environment. Earth to Philly encountered the car in a slightly more down-to-earth setting.

The electric-car market in America is still moving in what might be called fits and starts.

I'm happy to report that the same cannot be said of the Smart Electric Drive, which I had the opportunity to drive on Saturday, with the car's first Pennsylvania appearance at Smart Center Trevose (up on Street Road just past the tip of Roosevelt Boulevard).

The electric "fortwo" is built around the same engine as a Tesla and will go around 83 miles between charges and can be charged by a regular household outlet. (More detailed specs available here.) As distances go for electrics that's relatively small, but then, so is the Smart car, whose tiny size gives it a higher efficiency in converting energy.

The ride, for a few miles around Trevose two-lane highways, was smooth and the car handled very responsively. The gas pedal seemed to take longer than I expected to engage, but that could be a car-by-car variability. Once I got the hang of it I was able to pull out and accelerate immediatley to a cruising speed.

I was pleased to see an instant-feedback gauge for energy consumption - one of the things I love about the Prius - although it's a clock-style needle rather than a numerical readout. But Smart USA's Derek Kaufman, who rode shotgun while explaining the car's features, noted that it was providing feedback in real time, unlike the Prius' MPG readout, which is averaged over a much of a minute.

I pushed the car to see if I could reach the point where its all-electric basis became a liability. The closest I got was climbing a hill with the Air Conditioner on and accelerating. I managed to get the pedal all the way down without generating any further acceleration. But I had to ask myself, at that point, did I really need any?

Kaufman pointed out that the air-conditioning unit draws "2 to 3 kilowatts" off the battery, while "the heater draws 3 to 4." I was confused by that until I realized that the internal combustion engine's constant pumping out of heat, most of it wasted energy, does have that one advantage in its spillover into modifying cabin temperature.

With its small size and electric power steering (the electric tech does result in this version of the "fortwo" being heavier than its conventional counterpart), though, the Electric Drive performs very well, filling the perceived gap between gas and electric response. When I pulled out after a left turn and needed to get right up to speed the car accelerated handsomely. I looked at the spedometer and couldn't believe we'd gone from 0 to 60 in such quick time!

Wait a minute, I thought, we're not going 60 mph... that's when I took a closer look and noticed the spedometer was in kilometers, rather than miles, per hour. Kaufman said that when the first 250 Smart electrics arrive here for lease in October, they will have MPH spedometers.

Those 250 will be "phase two" models, with further refinements in store for "phase three," which will result in full production of cars for people to buy in 2012. Smart is definitely making aggressive steps to position itself for a surge in electric-car buying. But how big that will be and when it will kick in is still very much an open question.

The "fits and starts" I mentioned at the outset are largely due to the chicken-egg problem of cars and charging stations. The latter are being implemented incorridors in California, Oregon and Florida, for example, but not so much in the Keystone state (Maryland is largely beating us to the punch.). It's great to be able to drive for 83 miles... but what then?

We're going to need more infastructure attention here in Pennsylvania as well as the rest of the Northeast Corridor before the appeal of these cars can reach a tipping point. In the meantime, laying the groundwork by whetting people's appetite for electric driving - with events like that on Saturday - is something that can only be described as Smart.