No trippin’ on this EV road trip with the smart one

If you are a newbie to electric vehicles (EVs), don’t let the naysayers put you off taking it cross-country.

They are so mated to their internal combustion engine (ICE) that the thought of driving an EV, and having to look for a charging port, plugging, and charging, scares the daylights out of them.

They will then flip when you tell them you plan to go all the way to Johor, or up north to Perlis (and why not, slip over into Thai territory) and while you are at it, traverse Gerik-Jeli to East Coast territory!

I still drive an ICE car, but am slowly but surely being bitten by the EV bug.

Having had the opportunity to drive one from an established Scandinavian brand well over 12 months ago, followed by an upstart Chinese brand that bills itself a Tesla rival, I then took over the wheel of a Sino-German entrant that goes by the name of Smart.

More precisely it is the smart#1 (which the makers insist is pronounced as it is spelt – hence “smart hashtag one”, and smart spelt with a lowercase ‘s’).

Now this has really gotten my goat! Its marketing and public relations advisers have missed the most delicious chance to simply call this car the Smart One!

One is the operative word as this is the first progeny that is the result of a Swiss/German-Sino 50:50 union. Smart, in its early groundbreaking days, was the automotive creation out of a joint Swiss (Swatch – S) and German (Mercedes – M) collaboration. Their ‘arty-farty’ direction added the word ‘art’, producing the portmanteau SMART.

Followers of quirky fashion would immediately spring into recognition of the origins of the smart back in the late 1990s. Together with Ford, manufacturers started producing small, funky, sub-compacts with room for just driver and passenger.

They began appearing on the most fashionable street addresses all over Europe, creating a buzz driven by celebrities. The novelty value was emphasised in how nifty it was to squeeze in and out of hot parking spots in fashionable city streets. But with the passage of time, interest began to wane and Mercedes surrendered half the brand to Geely.

With Geely’s input, the smart has been transformed to become, I must admit, ‘smarter’!

Note that this is the first iteration of the smart, post collaboration, hence the #1 designation (with second and further models to be called #3 and #35, and so on).

Now that that fury has been vented, let’s get down to the business of sizing up the package. You get the funky feeling of design levity and creativity when you are handed the key fob, a handily-sized round disc a little larger than our old 50 sen coin, that is used for entry and exit, as well as to open the boot.

Be aware some key fobs may catch you unawares, especially when you activate and deactivate without hanging around to see if the coast is clear for you to leave the car, especially by the roadside, overnight.

Once I did just that, having absent-mindedly holding down the “open button” for more than a few seconds without looking back. This triggered another function – opening all the windows automatically. The heavens opened up that night – and I had a tough time towelling down the seats the next morning! Be warned!

The first thing that catches the eye when taking possession of the smart is its bubbly boxy front-to-rear outline. It is more on the plus size to be called anything but a medium-sized compact. It is almost SUV in external outline figure.

The extremities bulge outwards, pouring out with rather pleasing puppy fat in the anterior and the posterior, thus giving it an unmissable road presence.

As a result, it is surprisingly spacious inside, certainly with no mini aura of cloistered claustrophobia.

Having taken over possession of the car, what to do with it as the ultimate test destination? My co-driver Faris Budin blurted ‘Besut, Terengganu’. Unthinkingly I said, ‘Why not?’

Secondly, do we dare, to get there? “Why not,” said Faris; “… Who dares, wins” he summoned the spirit of the famed British paratroop regiment; the Special Air Service, well-renowned for its combat exploits and modern-day counter-terrorism heroism.

We picked a Sunday and the first thing before setting off was to pay a visit to LaLaport at the Bukit Bintang City Centre, where once stood the much-storied Pudu Jail. Why LaLaport? Simply because the carpark offers convenient charging-while-dining at the many F&B outlets it hosts, gratis! (Shhh…don’t be telling nobody!)

The smart still had 65 per cent battery ‘in the tank’ but we took our time, planning to top up to 100 per cent, while having breakfast. We lingered no more than 45 minutes before heading up the Karak highway, which allowed the ride and handling capabilities to be aggressively put to the sword.

Though we were not rally drivers, really pressing the pedal to take bends and corners at higher than normal speeds – but not pushing beyond our personal handling capabilities – was so much (but still safe) fun.

Our first pit stop was the Gambang RnR on the Lebuhraya Pantai Timur (LPT) Highway. We had no option but to stop, take a breather and charge, although we still had 50 per cent in the tank, considering the next charging station would be almost 300km away in Kuala Terengganu.

We turned on the Hello smart app and promptly hooked up to one of the two DC charging ports and took our time to have a leisurely lunch. By the time we got back, we found a Lotus Eletre also being charged – which was a surprise since this must be the only Lotus EV in Malaysia for now, which must have been a direct import.

I drove ahead as we both exited Gambang at the same time, but a Lotus being a Lotus, we simply let it draw level and pull ahead. We leaned back to admire it from the back, as it sped along and disappeared from sight in mere seconds!

This second leg on the LPT was rather uneventful, except that we decided to detour to Kerteh. Our app of choice showed we needed to stop if we wanted to maintain enough battery power, now that we were reaching unknown territory. HelloSmart pointed us to the Petronas Recreation Club in the outskirts of Kerteh. It had two charging stands, so we relaxed a little, knowing we will not be left stranded.

After Kerteh it was onward to Kuala Terengganu and we opted for another charge-up at the Primula Hotel as recommended by the app.

Primula was where it got a little interesting. The front desk at the hotel informed us that the fast-charging (DC) port was for BMW EVs only. But if we still wanted to, the same charge delivered at the very same port would charge up ever so slowly. So, beware, such little discriminatory idiosyncrasies exist, as not all that information will be set out in your EV charging app of choice.

So what then to do? We paid our RM60 (single charge) at the front desk and promptly plugged in. It would take a full eight-odd hours, and we had to be in Besut before 10pm that night for an important rendezvous!

Faris came up with a plan. Having spent time as an undergraduate student in these parts of the country before, he suggested we hired a car to continue our journey, which turned out to be a normal, tiny, local ICE. Small matter. We got to our rendezvous and kept our appointment, while giving the smart#1 an overnight breather.

After a hearty Besut breakfast – what else but crispy and oily ICT (ikan celup tepong) – it was back to KT to pick up our EV.

We headed straight for the Primula Hotel basement (conveniently located at road level) carpark and was reunited by what was now a fully-charged smart.

With time to kill we headed south for Kerteh for another planned rendezvous. But along the way we simply had to pull up at the Pantai Kemasik layby for the breathtaking sight of the open sea. Even if I say so myself, the picture of the smart#1 framed against the South China Sea in the background makes for such a pretty picture!

Since we had topped up our batteries in full at Kerteh, the journey back home was uneventful, since we did not really push the car to its limits. We got home (Kerteh to KL was just over 320km distance) with enough juice to spare, having proven to ourselves that have EV, will travel!

Main image: Faris Budin

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