Review: Behind the wheel of Smart #1 in Malaysia, the Mercedes EV for people who can't afford a Mercedes

One thing is for sure: there's an air of hopeful confidence among the staff of Pro-Net, also known as the people bringing the Smart #1 into Malaysia.

It's the kind of conviction that comes from perhaps keeping a trump card only they know about, or in having a genuinely good product. The former may be a killer price point; but we're all yet to know anything about that, so it's hoped that it's the second item that's proven true as we gather at Proton's Shah Alam test track for an early preview drive of this new EV SUV.

Premium aspirations

Photos are of overseas models; for illustration purpose only

They're aiming for the big leagues with this one – benchmarking against the Mercedes-Benz EQA and Mini Electric – and as far as initial impressions go, it gets close. The cutesy bulbous look easily found fans, and the cabin is quite reminiscent of modern Mercedeses.

The latter's a byproduct of having the #1 being penned by the Mercedes-Benz global design team which means familiar parts and ideas return, like the steering-column mounted gear shifter. You'll spot a badge by the B-pillar telling you of its three-pointed star origins too.

Also read: Review: 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQA 250 – The XC40 EV is objectively better, but not as likeable

Best described as a Proton X50-sized compact SUV – it's 4,270 mm long, 1,822 mm wide, 1,636 mm tall with a 2,750 mm wheelbase – the #1 nails interior space. Room at the back is impressive (as are the wide door openings to get in) and just like the best EVs, affords enough space beneath the front seats for rear occupants to slide their feet in.

Aesthetics play a central role, with everything looking cohesive and neat

Yeah, the cabin. There's lots to talk about in here actually. We'll get the complaint out of the way first because it's the first thing that caught me off guard before I set off: "Where's the side mirror controls?" Turns out it's a jab at the 12.8-inch screen and multiple presses of the steering wheel-mounted buttons away, which left me thinking...why complicate something so simple?

Also read: Touch-sensitive buttons a mistake? VW to bring back physical buttons on steering wheel

But the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8155 chipset makes it a snappy screen to use for everything else (and it really does control almost everything else, including air-cond), complementing the vivid colours and crystal clear output off its 360-degree cameras. Our sole CBU China test car also had Beats audio, which may prove attractive for some of the market Smart's trying to reach.

The instrument binnacle is a 9.2-inch display, clear and easy to read albeit a little small

One gets the impression that aesthetics take pole position in the Smart. There's 64-colour ambient lighting (which extends to the floor!), fancy air-cond vents, and even a fun AI fox that follows you around as you whizz around menus.

Put it this way: if style is what you seek, then the #1 still has that DNA from its early days intact.

The sunroof

Quality of the leather (real, not the synthetic kind), plushness of the seats, and feel of the plastics are pleasing to the touch, though whether or not the tester's bright, tri-tone colour combo be offered here remains to be seen. As a whole though we'd rank the Smart #1's cabin a touch above the Ora Good Cat and BYD Atto 3.

The drive

We've only driven the Smart #1 in left-hand drive, pre-production, China-market form and on Proton's proving ground. Typical of these drives we only got a few laps, which comprised of smooth banked turns, high-speed sections, and a part off the main circuit that simulates real-world conditions (roads with manhole covers, potholes, imperfections, and such).

Our car's a China-spec one, so it's got a 272 PS/343 Nm electric motor driving the rear wheels. As the numbers suggest it's quite a shove; capable of pulling it to 100 km/h from zero in just 6.7 seconds.

The Smart #1 sits on Geely's bespoke Sustainable Experience Architecture (SEA) EV platform

Drawing power from a 66 kWh lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) battery, range following the WLTP standard is between 420 km to 440 km. The one with the higher range is so because its powertrain is equipped with silicon carbide (SiC) technology in the motor.

Overseas models support up to 22 kW AC charging and up to 150 kW DC charging (CCS Combo 2).

Regardless, the characteristic instant torque of EVs is present, which makes it move sprightlier than its 1,820 kg kerb weight suggests. There's this 'planted' feeling that is palpable even as we glid past the embankments at 100 km/h or so.

You've also got Eco, Comfort, and Sport mode settings to tweak accelerator and steering response too.

Also read: Malaysia-bound Smart #1 scores 5 stars at the Euro-NCAP; 96% in Adult Occupancy, higher than a Tesla Model S

Early signs of the ride are decent, but it's set up a bit on the firm side (typcical of EVs with heavy batteries, we note) so some sharp bumps do force their way into the cabin. The good thing is that wind and road noise are nicely suppressed.

Handling could benefit from extra attention. Maybe it's the 19-inchers that compound the issue, but the Smart #1 doesn't feel as nimble as we initially presumed – the nearly two-tonne weight and slightly slower steering ratio plays into this too.

Verdict: Lots to look forward to

What's important now is for the Pro-Net team to psychologically 'distance' Smart away from Proton. There's still talk that it could be relatively cheaper just because the national carmaker is involved, but Smart will remain its own thing.

Also read: Smart: Proton to be centre of brand's EV strategy for SEA, one new model every year until 2024

Tweaking the #1 to Malaysian tastes is imperative, and we hear the Malaysian team are working on things like a bespoke app, and MoUs with relevant parties to make life with an EV easier among other things – though perfecting the suspension will bid very well indeed.

But as it stands today? The Smart #1 is an intelligent move; a decent family EV SUV will find homes sooner than a ForTwo ever did, so perhaps all that confidence is rightfully backed up.

Also read: Smart #1 on track for Malaysian introduction in Q3 2023; bringing dedicated sales and service network, more EV chargers

The Smart #1 will be at the Carlist Drive Auto Fair 2023! Click the image above for the registration link, and stand a chance to win prizes worth RM 2,688!
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