- The SmartFortwo and the new Electra Meccanica Solo are two of the smallest vehicles I’ve ever driven.
- Comparing the two is a bit of a loaded deck for the Smart because it’s a bona fide car, while the Solo is an electric urban autocycle.
- The Smart takes it, but the vehicles have also been around since the late 1990s and have never sold well – so the field is open for fresh ideas!
Big SUVs and large pickups might be dominating the US auto market these days, but hope springs eternal for smaller rides.
Daimler rolled out one of the most familiar micro-cars in the late 1990s, under the Smart brand. The idea was to offer ultra-compact transportation to city dwellers. And the vehicles are still around. I sampled a sassy convertible in 2016.
Of course, these vehicles haven’t exactly caught on: only about 100 of the gas- and electric-powered vehicles sell per month in the US.
But on paper, very small city cars still make sense, and a new player, Electra Meccanica, recently asked me to sample its all-electric three-wheeler, which can cover 100 miles on a charge and is aimed at commuters and urban inhabitants.
The Solo seats just one and costs $US15,000. The Smart Fortwo has a base price of less than $US19,000, although the drop-top I tested came in at $US24,000.
Given that there are so few micro-cars out there, I figured it might be worth it to compare the two, although it isn’t entirely fair. The Smart is, after all, a proper automobile with four wheels. I also dared to take it on the highway, while I only drove the Solo for a few hours, in Manhattan.
With that in mind, each vehicle has its virtues. Read on to learn more about them.
A Canadian company, Electra Meccanica got started in 2015 and recently began to deliver $US15,000 examples of its all-electric three-wheeler to customers in the US (the firm is descended from an Italian maker of relatively obscure sports cars, Intermeccanica).
It’s not large. Not large at all. In fact, I think it’s the smallest product vehicle I’ve ever sampled that wasn’t a motorcycle. It’s ten feet long and four feet wide, according the company.
Also, it has not four, but three wheels. This means the Solo is classified as an autocycle.
As you can see, parking this little guy anywhere in Manhattan, a parking-challenged place, would not be difficult.
It’s a trim little thing, with a peppy 82 horsepower motor that draws electrons from a 17 kilowatt-hour battery. Using so-called “level 2” charging, it can be rejuiced in three hours (a wall outlet takes six). Total range is 100 miles.
Two doors, one seat, and a front trunk or “frunk” that’s large enough to handle a duffle bag.
Let’s slip inside.
The instruments are rudimentary, but the digital display does provide the important stuff, such as speed and battery charge. There’s also a basic stereo, with Bluetooth connectivity and USB ports.
Was it scary to drive? Not really. But I was surrounded by bigger, more menacing vehicles in the two hours I had with the Solo.
So what’s the verdict?
It’s a fun, fun, fun, eye-catching machine.
Drivingwise, the 0-60 mph dash passes in 8 seconds. OK, that’s not crazy fast, but it happens in a very small vehicle that has electric-car torque, so you feel the pop.
I can’t vouch for safety or reliability, but Electra Meccanica says that the Solo has been rigorously tested, and the top speed is 82 mph, so taking it to the freeway is possible. The ride isn’t exactly plush, but darting in and out of traffic is enjoyable, and parking the Solo would be perpetually satisfying. So I can make a case for ownership, but at this point it’s narrow. However, with most electric vehicles going on sale for over $US40,000, it’s cool to see a company offering a more basic idea.
If you like to ride motorcycles but are ageing out of it, you can find some of the same fun with the Solo. And the cargo capacity, while limited, is good enough for runs to the grocery store.
Apart from the ride, the brakes take some getting used to. I found myself programming my brain to prepare for a stop a bit earlier than usual. Larger adults might also struggle with the seat, although I think anybody six feet and under would be A-OK.
Electra Meccanica is promoting the Solo as being cheap to maintain, and I suspect it will be: it doesn’t have a lot of components, the drivetrain is simple, and the tires should be inexpensive to replace.
The company is taking $US250 refundable reservation to build the Solo for delivery. Yes, it’s offbeat. Yes, if you drive around a city or town, you’ll be mobbed. Children will point. Adults will ask questions. You’ll become a sort of small-time celebrity. And if that plus driving the smallest thing on three wheels doesn’t trouble you, then the Electra Meccanica Solo might be your ticket.
On to the Smart Fortwo Cabrio!
The experience of sitting behind the wheel of a Smart has often been described as “novel.” And to be sure, if you do live in a big, congested city where parallel parking is a contact sport, or if you need a simple runabout for a suburbs, the Smart could be a good choice. To be sure, the Smart induces a definite “Hey, cool!’ reaction no matter how you think about it.
The Smart is so wee that it’s easy to hide!
The cabin is obviously tiny, but not severely uncomfortable. Large humans probably shouldn’t apply. Also, to state the obvious: two seats, one more than the Solo. Thus … For two! Get it?
I drove the Smart around Manhattan, but I also hit the highway to return my homefront, suburban New Jersey, where I used the car to conduct daily business, such as grocery shopping.
There’s not a lot of room in the rear compartment. This is a rear-engined vehicle, by the way. The punchy three-cylinder powerplant displaces just under a litre, with a turbocharger that enables 89 horsepower, managed by a twin-clutch, six-speed automatic transmission. It’s a hoot to drive.
A run to Target meant that I needed to let some merchandise right shotgun.
Unless you’re driving, say, the Electra Meccanica Solo (!), you’re always going to be the smallest thing in the parking lot.
Those are drum brakes on the rear wheels, and they take some getting used to.
As much as I dug the Solo, I have to give this remarkably mismatched battle to the Smart.
At 35 mpg on the highway, gas mileage isn’t great for the Smart – it’s substantially lower than, say, a Toyota Prius. But technology is what you’d expect on any modern car.
It has an adequate infotainment interface, Bluetooth connectivity, USB and AUX ports, and a halfway decent sounding audio system (a JBL six-speaker setup) – all stuff the Solo has, but in a lesser form. The seats on our tester were heated, but just so you know, the steering wheel is fixed, so you have to fiddle with the driver’s seat to create a comfortable piloting position.
The Smart is one of those cars that I first saw in Europe and thought might be worth thinking about if you wanted a vehicle and lived in a big US city. I still think that, but the idea is under stress from new entrants, such as Electric Meccanica.
This is a cute car, especially with the ragtop. And it’s more of a real car than the Solo. Not testing the electric version made for a limp comparison in that front, and to be honest, the small battery on the Solo would be quick to recharge. That said, the gas-engined Smart has greater versatility, given our current transportation infrastructure.
In the end, I enjoyed the Smart for what it is, an odd car that’s gotten less odd over the years. It isn’t the future anymore, however. For that, you’d need to look at vehicles such as the Solo.
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