I use the word “may” advisedly, because like any answer to a problem it depends a great deal on what you want to do with the cars. But at an estimated $139 a month lease, the Smart Electric is far cheaper than the Tesla S to own, easier to park (critical to a commuter car). Plus, you can better afford another car to drive distance, also critical if you own any electric.
Granted, I think the Smart would be even smarter if it had about twice the range, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Why an Electric?
Now most folks seem to want to buy an electric because it makes them feel more environmentally aware and there is, particularly in California, some status associated with being perceived as green. In terms of gas costs, an electric is certainly cheaper but given you pay a substantial premium for one, this gas savings can be offset.
The best reason right now to own an electric in some areas comes down to two advantages: you can drive in car-pool lanes without a passenger (almost worth the cost of admission alone) and the cars are particularly efficient in traffic. The slower you go, and the more stop and go you have, the more relatively efficient an electric is.
Where Electrics Suck
Electrics, when compared to gas cars, suck for two reasons. They tend to be substantially more expensive on a price for performance scale and charging is both slow and, for most, inconvenient. For example, the ideal place to have an electric would seem to be as an in city commuter car but finding charging connected to a parking garage or meter is not at all a sure thing and personal garages in city are not always common. Suburbs have the garage, but often commutes longer than the range of many electrics and much of the commute may be at freeway speeds which aren’t ideal for extending electric range. But charging is headed into cities.
Tesla S vs. Smart Electric
For a commuter car, which is where an electric should shine, smaller is better and there are few cars smaller than a Smart car. The Tesla S is larger than my SUV and solidly on the large side of the full size sedan class. Finding parking for it will thus be far more difficult. Monthly lease cost for the Smart is around $140 and for the Tesla S around $1,000 a month to lease (you typically lease electrics, though the Tesla has a unique program). Tesla will argue that your savings in gas and car pool lane advantages have an offsetting value of nearly $400 a month - bringing down the effective cost of the Tesla to around $600. But those same savings could be applied to the Smart and it likely would get lower insurance changes as well, suggesting it could actually make you more than it costs a month.
The more difficult issue is range.The Smart would be risky on any round trip commute over 60 miles and even at 60 miles you’d likely have battery anxiety from time to time. The Tesla can handle three times that but this isn’t a clear win because charging the Tesla, particularly in a public (non-supercharger) takes far longer. You likely can charge the Smart overnight on 110 AC while with the Tesla you really need 220 to charge the thing at a reasonable time and even they you’ll likely want a boosted charger which is tough to find outside of your garage.
Wrapping Up: Smart Edge = Second car
You could buy two Smart Cars, one gas and one electric, and still have a monthly lease cost of under $250 a month. Drive one when you know you can live on electricity and the other when you are worried you won’t make it. Both cars can fit in one garage smaller than Tesla S parking slot. The number of people that can afford the Tesla’s price is a far smaller group and affording two large cars, let alone finding a place to part them both, is a far bigger problem particularly in cities. You are often lucky to get one small slot, let alone one large enough to fit one full sized car easily.
Remember, a lot of us buy cars because of how they make us feel, rather than for practicality. Since I primarily drive sports cars or supercars myself, I’m hardly one to argue that going the practical route is better. But in the case of an electric, practicality is supposed to be the primary argument. So while I’d personally rather own a Tesla S than two Smarts, the reality is that for what you are supposed to buy an electric for, the Smart, or two of them, may be smarter. Go figure?