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(Pocket-lint) - Stop anyone in the street and ask them to name the electric car pioneers and it's likely the big names will make up the majority of answers: the Renault Zoe, Nissan Leaf and Elon Musk's Tesla Model S.

It might be difficult to comprehend but Smart has been dabbling with plug-in propulsion since 2007 when it unleashed a fleet of 100 all-electric micro-machines onto London roads.

That's a good five years before the Renault Zoe went into production and to this day, Smart remains the only manufacturer in the world to offer its model in the choice of all-electric drive or typical internal combustion variants.

Unfortunately, previous-generation Smarts have suffered from a number of issues: including a poor safety record, lofty price tags, cheap interiors and a terrible drive (to name a few), which is probably why the niche electric variants struggled to take the world by storm.

Now in its fourth-generation, the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive has tweaked its recipe of tiny footprint, superior turning circle and inner city friendliness so it is now more palatable than ever. Could this be the car to lure motorists away from the forecourts?

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive: Design

Available in either three-door or five-door hatch variants (the latter dubbed ForFour and can seat, erm, four), the Smart Electric Drive doesn't stray too far from the styling of its petrol-powered siblings.

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In short, it's a complete and utter Marmite car. Some will love the scrunched up exterior and comically flared haunches of the ForTwo, while others will dismiss it as a clown car.

To be fair to its designers, the car follows function rather than form and the smaller ForTwo actually looks the more appealing of the two variants.

Its shorter wheelbase and oversized alloy wheels lend it some sporting credentials, while its four-seat sibling looks a little ill-proportioned and awkward, despite being infinitely more practical.

There is also a Smart ForTwo Cabrio, which sees the roof lopped off to become the only electric cabriolet currently available in the market.

Contrasting mirror caps and special bright green paintjob on the tridion safety cell differentiate the electric models (as well as a few Electric Drive decals), while interiors receive a large power meter and battery status display.

Neat touches include the split tailgate in the ForTwo, which allows users to easily reach inside the titchy boot to retrieve bags and the impressively wide aperture doors.

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Getting in and out of the Smart ForTwo's enormous doors is a doodle, unless something is parked particularly close, then it becomes a nightmare. The smaller doors on the ForFour are slightly better conceived and these deliberately open to 90-degress to make loading bulkier items easier.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive: Interior and infotainment

Despite Smart being part of the Daimler group, which includes Mercedes-Benz, the majority of interior parts are lifted from the group's cheaper sibling, Renault.

Standard Electric Drive models receive a pretty basic DAB radio system with aux-in, USB and Bluetooth, as well as monochrome LCD instrument cluster display.

Weirdly, Smart also throws in cruise control as standard, which is particularly odd seeing as the ForTwo really isn't designed to hack up and down the motorway... but more on that later.

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Customers wishing to enjoy satellite navigation and a more up-to-date infotainment system must opt for Smart Media-System, which adds a 7-inch colour touch-screen display (robbed from Renault) and a stylish 3.5-inch colour TFT display that replaces the monochrome trip computer.

Although not the most attractive infotainment system available (the screen looks bolted on to the dash) it's responsive and supports most smartphone functionality when tethered.

Other notable optional packs include the Winter Package, which adds a handy heated steering wheel and heated seats.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive: Connectivity

Smart has an entire division dedicated to the development of various smartphone apps and browser-based software systems for its new models.

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With regards to the Electric Drive models, its unique app boasts fairly standard features across the EV industry. It allows drivers to check charge status, pre-heat or cool the cabin, receive maintenance notifications and select the cheapest times - all remotely.

This service will likely be free to customers for the first three years but will subsequently incur a fee to cover the data bills associated with an on-board SIM card.

However, a more advanced ecosystem, dubbed 'Smart For' is currently being trialled in Germany.

With help from DHL, customers can now receive packages and deliveries direct to compatible Smart cars. They simply punch in a specially generated code when prompted by online marketplaces, such as Amazon. This then allows the delivery driver to temporarily unlock the car, deliver the package and then walk away.

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The same technology is being developed to allow Smart owners to share or rent their dormant vehicles to friends and family. Using similar temporary unlock codes, it means owners can specify pick-up and drop-off locations and maximise usage of the car.

Future electric cars: Upcoming battery-powered cars that will be on the roads within the next 5 years

Expect this private car sharing to be rolled out in the coming years.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive: The drive

Electric cars benefit from instantaneous torque, with their electric motors and battery packs able to deliver maximum shove as soon as the accelerator is depressed: no waiting for revs to climb in order to hit the sweet spot.

The Smart ForTwo Electric Drive is no different, as its improved lithium-ion battery packs feed power to a separately excited three-phase synchronous motor, which in turn drives the rear wheels. There's no gearbox to contend with here, as this Smart works on a single, fixed-gear ratio to go about its business.

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Quick pub fact: it doesn't even change gears when slotted into reverse. Instead, the engine's direction of rotation changes, meaning you could effectively reverse at 80mph if the killjoys at Smart hadn't installed a limiter.

Regardless, the new Smart ForTwo ED feels nippy, especially when hammering away from the lights in busy city traffic. But that's really where the fun ends.

First of all, steering is quick but offers almost no feedback, so it's great for zipping in and out of tight car parks but not so good for placing the thing through corners.

Secondly, the suspension has been reinforced in this plug-in model to cope with the additional weight of the batteries but it still feels overly firm, often causing a considerable thump in the lower back when traversing speed bumps and potholes.

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Finally, it feels out of its depth on motorways and larger roads, with trucks and other oversized traffic bearing down on its tiny frame and wind noise leaking into the cabin, it's not exactly a stress-free environment.

First Impressions

It's difficult to be too harsh on the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, because it's a very likeable little city car but a basic Nissan Leaf costs about the same and offers bags more interior room and everyday practicality.

If you're already a Smart Car convert, then making the switch over to the plug-in variant should be a no-brainer. It doesn't affect performance - nor does it inhibit interior space - it's better for the environment and will save a packet on fuel bills.

However, making the jump from a regular, combustion-engined hatchback into the ForTwo of ForFour could be a slightly more daunting prospect if your commute spans beyond the city.

Writing by Leon Poultney. Originally published on 20 February 2017.