Smart left the US market in 2019, having set the limits of our enthusiasm for the unique and clunky city car. But the company’s blunders in America are only a fraction of the brand’s broader commercial fiasco, which had led to a reported $3.6 billion in losses before being fully absorbed into the Daimler empire in 2006.
Therefore, Smart took a radical new direction and was relaunched as a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and Geely Group in China (which owns Volvo, Polestar, and Lotus, among other brands). Going forward, Smart will only offer EVs, and the first—the #1—uses the SEA Geely electric platform and will be built in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. It will be sold in China and Europe, but there are no plans to bring the brand back to the US. But because we thought you wanted to know what you were missing, we rode it in Portugal.
Let’s start with the name. #1 is really meant to be said to be Hashtag One, which is ridiculous and oddly interesting; we were told to expect future Smart models to retain the same format. While significantly larger than the previous Smart, and nearly twice as heavy as the Fortwo, the #1 is smaller than the segment average, 168.1 inches shorter than the Volvo XC40 Recharge and Mercedes-Benz EQA. There’s something definitely Mercedes-like about the full-width taillight bars, but the rest of the style has an undeniably cutesy charm.
The interior is impressive, both in terms of space—much bigger inside than it should be—and in design as well. There’s enough room for full-size adults to sit behind each other, and although the stroller’s roof profile cuts into the rear door glass, the cabin feels light and airy. The large center console offers a charging tray, cupholder and cold storage case. Luggage space is limited, with just 11 cubic feet behind the rear seats, plus a small frunk under the hood.
The fit and finish in the cabin is great, and there are some interesting touches, such as the way the LED illumination is integrated into the metal air vents and door panels. Almost all of the physical switchgear has been removed, with functions controlled by the large 12.8-inch touchscreen in the center of the dashboard. The screen looks good, but our test car’s user interface seems unfinished, with spelling errors and failures that are more worrying: Switching the tab for the stability control system to the “on” position actually turns it off. While the Volvo and Polestar both use the Android Auto operating system, the Smart is based on Geely’s own ECARX, which doesn’t support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. However, it features a cute animated fox exploring the submenus.
All #1s will use the same lithium-ion battery pack, which we estimate will provide a usable capacity of 59.4 kWh. The base model directs battery energy to a single 268-hp rear motor, while the top of the range Brabus adds a second 154-hp front motor for a total output of 422 horsepower. All models support DC fast charging at speeds up to 150 kW, and all but the base version have a 22.0 kW charger installed, which is increasingly common in Continental Europe. Range under the optimistic European WLTP test cycle varied from 273 miles for the most efficient rear-drive version to 248 miles for the Brabus.
Those numbers are all towards the high end of the segment’s standards, and the #1 delivers a quiet driving experience. Despite its claimed 3,942 pounds, acceleration on the rear motorcycle version is fast, especially during low descents, and although the Continental EcoContact #1 tires sometimes struggle for off-line traction, the car feels safe on the move. At 80 mph, the cabin remains quiet and smooth.
While the #1 has selectable ride modes, it lacks the adaptive dampers that allow this to add discipline to its soft suspension. Ride comfort is good on generally smooth Portuguese asphalt, but cornering brings a lot of body roll, and tires with low roll resistance mean there is limited cornering grip and a tendency for the front to widen at moderate speeds. The chassis also feels like it’s hovering over rougher surfaces—it’s not a car that pushes the driver to push harder.
The #1 does offer a single-pedal driving mode, though it requires the driver to sit through a nine-second legal disclaimer before it can be activated. It proved to be very shy, slowing the car down at a gradual pace making it hard not to apply the brakes, and in Sport mode, it couldn’t really stop the car on a downhill slope.
While the rear-drive Smart #1 generally feels up to segment standards, the dual-motor Brabus version is, frankly, a dynamic mess. The arrival of the second bike brings almost 60 percent more power, but very little has changed. Smart engineers say the Brabus spring rate has been changed just to account for the extra mass of its second motor (which adds a claimed 247 pounds). It also uses the same EcoContact tires as regular cars—not the kind of rubber you’d expect to see under something more powerful than the Audi RS3.
The Brabus is the modern equivalent of the straight line hero muscle car. It’s capable of dispensing all four tires at launch, and its acceleration makes Smart’s claims of a 3.9-second sprint to 62 mph feel entirely plausible. But like a naughty puppy, he really sulks in corners, where traction control must struggle to maintain any level of discipline; We often encounter understeer and oversteer at the same corner. This is with new tires and on a warm, dry surface—the prospect of driving it on cold, wet asphalt is a little daunting.
One could argue that a car with more power than grip is fully qualified to wear the Brabus branding, the main purpose of all-wheel-drive #1 apparently being to showcase talent that is greater than a regular car. Europeans will be able to buy both starting next year, for around $32,500 at current exchange rates. Brabus would be about $10,000 more.
Smart Fortwo has always struggled in the US, its demographics being mostly a small overlap between misers and circus clowns. #1 should have a somewhat wider appeal.
2023 Smart #1
Vehicle Type: rear or front and rear motor, rear or all wheel drive, 5 passengers, 4 door wagon
PRICE (CD EST)
Base: $32,500; Brabus, $42,500
Motor: AC permanent magnet synchronous
Power: 268 or 422 hp
Torque: 253 or 400 lb-ft
Battery (CD est): liquid-cooled lithium-ion, 59.4 kWh
Onboard Charger: 7.4 or 22.0 kW
Peak DC Fast Charge Rate: 150 kW
Transmission: direct drive
Wheelbase: 108.3 inches
Length: 168.1-169.3 inches
Width: 71.7 inches
Height: 64.4 inches
Restraint Weight (CD approx.): 4000-4200 lb
SHOW (CD EST)
60 mph: 3.8-6.6 seconds
100 mph: 9.4-12.2 seconds
1/4-Mile: 12.3-15.0 seconds
Top Speed: 112 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMICS (CD EST)
Combined/City/Highway: 105-115/115-130/95-105 MPGe
Range: 210-230 miles
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