Smart #1 Premium review

smart #1 Premium exterior 6
Premium miniatures never earned Smart a profit. Could this new crossover be the turning point?

The original Smart City Coupé was one of the most revolutionary vehicles of the past quarter century – and a huge commercial failure.When the innovative miniature was first launched in 1998, Smart’s parent company, Daimler, predicted that cities would be designed around it – something that seemed genuinely possible, given its dinky dimensions and radical styling. But despite receiving generous backing for more than two decades, Smart never achieved commercial success, nor reportedly ever made a profit – and BMW’s much less technically adventurous Mini brand outsold it by more than three to one.That’s a quick way of explaining why, although the branding of the Smart #1 is familiar, almost everything else is different. This is another roll of the dice, an all-new electric crossover that’s the first product from a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and Geely, the Chinese giant that also owns Lotus, Polestar and Volvo.Under this deal, new Smart cars will be designed by Mercedes and briefly sold alongside the existing EQ Fortwo and EQ Forfour electric city cars. But the #1 sits on Geely’s SEA platform and will be built by that company in Xi’an, China.Let’s start by covering off the name, which, in the fashion of a middle-aged father trying to get down with the kids, really is meant to be pronounced ‘hashtag one’. You can decide for yourself whether that’s #blessed or #cringe.Three versions will be available from launch in the UK next year, the entry-level Pro+ (possibly the first car named after a hangover cure) and the Premium both using a 268bhp motor out back. The range topping Brabus (which you can read about overleaf) gets a second motor up front and peak output of 422bhp.All versions use the same underfloor lithium ion battery, using nickel-cobalt-manganese chemistry, with a 66kWh capacity and supporting DC rapid charging at rates of up to 150kW.The Premium and the Brabus can also manage 22kW AC charging where available, while the Pro+ is limited to 7.4kW. The cheaper car also has a slightly shorter range, 260 miles under WLTP against the Premium’s 273 miles, while the all-paw Brabus manages 248 miles.Although it’s the biggest Smart yet, the #1 isn’t especially large by segment standards. A 4270mm length makes it just 65mm longer than the Hyundai Kona Electric. The design pays distant homage to some earlier Smart models, although the single light bar across the rear is more reminiscent of Mercedes’ EQA, EQB and EQC electric crossovers.Despite its compact footprint, the #1 is impressively spacious inside, with generous head room and enough space for one fully grown adult to sit behind another.Luggage is less well catered for by a dinky 313-litre boot and a tiny 15-litre space under the bonnet.The interior is impressively well finished, too, with some stylish design and upmarket touches, including metal air vents incorporating colour adjustable LED elements.The user interface is less good, though. While Polestar and Volvo cars use Android Automotive, the new Smart operating system is based on Geely’s Ecarx tech. The not quite finalised version we experienced was easily the worst thing about the car: clumsy, unintuitive and with a number of embarrassing syntax and spelling errors in its English text.The system features the charms of an animated fox who pops up above menus and boxes, although most potential buyers would be likely to swap this cute gimmick for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality – serious omissions for any brand chasing tech-savvy buyers.On the plus side, the digital hardware is good, a fast Qualcomm chip set powering a lag-free high-definition 12.8in touchscreen.And the driving experience is more impressive. The #1 lacks any obvious dynamic similarities to any previous Smart car.With a kerb weight of 1788kg, the Premium is getting on for twice the weight of the existing EQ Fortwo, yet it rarely feels that heavy on road, thanks to brisk performance and a well-mannered chassis.As with most EVs, acceleration is keenest at lower speeds, with rapid responses and the absence of gearbox delays ensuring that gaps are there for the taking.Beyond 60mph, the rate at which speed is gathered starts to tail off, but the #1 is still pulling reasonably hard as it gets to the upper end of likely motorway cruising speeds. Ultimately, a 112mph limiter calls time, but few drivers will ever be likely to find it.There are three driving modes – Eco, Comfort and Sport – although the lack of adaptive dampers means these alter only the accelerator mapping, regenerative braking strength and steering weight.Two levels of regen can be manually selected, and there’s no option of a freewheeling sail mode, unlike in some EVs. There is a one-pedal driving function, but this slows you very gradually, and with Sport mode selected it isn’t able to bring the #1 to a full halt on a falling gradient.Fortunately, the brake pedal integrates electrical and friction braking effectively and seamlessly.Refinement and ride quality are both good, but the control responses feel inconsistent. The throttle has a very slight response delay – only a couple of tenths of a second but enough to mean that any sudden requests for urge arrive with a bump. The springy-feeling steering also delivers non-linear reactions, with a keen initial turn-in and then a dead patch. Despite rear-wheel drive, understeer is the default handling characteristic, with much of this due to the limited bite of the low resistance Continental EcoContact 6 tyres. There’s also significant lean under cornering loads. And although you can turn the traction control system off, the motor’s traction management doesn’t allow the car’s tail to slide under power.The most important missing detail for now is the #1’s price, which won’t be announced until closer to the UK on-sale date. Confirmed European numbers do give us the ballpark, though, with France’s ¤39,950 kickoff suggesting that the Pro+ should be around the £35,000 mark.Standard kit is impressive for that price, including a panoramic roof, electrically adjustable and heated front seats and a powered tailgate.(Smart executives say that a cheaper base model with fewer toys is planned for later.)The Premium will cost around £3000 more, adding adaptive matrix headlights, wireless phone charging and a Beats-branded sound system. Despite generous kit, though, such pricing would leave the #1 carrying a hefty premium over the MG 4 EV.The fact that UK deliveries aren’t due to start until the second half of next year means there’s still time for Smart to apply more polish to the #1. Frankly, it needs it. There’s a good car here, but one that’s in danger of being let down by the details.
Source: Autocar

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