New Smart #1 and BYD Atto 3 vs Kia Niro EV

The #1 is a new type of Smart: an electric SUV. But it faces competition from another fresh face and an established favourite...

Smart #1 vs BYD Atto 3 vs Kia Niro EV fronts from high up

The contenders

NEW Smart #1 Premium

List price £38,950
Target Price £38,950

The first offering from the reborn Smart brand is a stylish electric SUV with a plush interior and plenty of power. But is it a better proposition than the tiny city cars the brand is known for – and indeed its new rivals?

NEW BYD Atto 3 Design

List price £38,990
Target Price £38,990

Chinese brand BYD marks its entry into the UK market with this Nissan Qashqai-sized electric SUV, which has a striking interior and some clever tech

Kia Niro EV 3

List price £39,545
Target Price £38,769

In an earlier guise, this ground-breaking model was our 2019 overall Car of the Year. It makes up for a relatively high price by having the longest official range here, and we know that it’s good to drive

Remember about 10 years ago when people suddenly started inserting the word ‘hashtag’ into sentences for effect? You’d randomly hear ‘hashtag sunny day’ when the weather was nice. Or ‘hashtag coffee time’ when someone in the office was feeling a bit tired. Then a year or so later, like most fads, the word became overused and banal – the sort of thing your uncle might have said at a family get-together to try to show he was still clued up on the ‘latest’ vernacular.

Smart #1 vs BYD Atto 3 vs Kia Niro EV rears

Well, it could have been your ageing uncle who named Smart’s latest model. That’s right: ‘hashtag’ has been recycled from the bin of cringe, presumably in an attempt to give the new Smart #1 more appeal with younger generations.

We doubt very much that will work, but they might live with the embarrassment of the name for the shrunken Mercedes styling. This is no accident: Smart, which brought us the easy-to-park and now iconic Smart Fortwo way back in 1998, is half-owned by Mercedes (which does the design), with Chinese brand Geely now owning the other 50% and taking care of the engineering.

That brings us neatly on to our next contender, because it, too, has links with China. Well, more than links, actually: BYD is fully Chinese-owned and the BYD Atto 3 is the brand’s first model to be offered for sale in the UK. Like the #1, it’s a small SUV, and it’s one of the first electric vehicles (EVs) with a new LFP (lithium iron phosphate) Blade battery, which has fewer toxic ingredients (no cobalt), improved safety and a longer shelf life.

Smart #1 side

The two newcomers face off against the Kia Niro EV – our 2019 overall Car of the Year in its earlier e-Niro guise. It’s a bit more expensive (even in a lower comparable trim) but promises the longest range between charges, so it will be tough to beat.


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

If anything, you’d expect car manufacturers to be optimistic about performance figures. So, imagine our surprise when the #1, with a driver and front passenger on board, sprinted from a standstill to 60mph in just 5.8sec. That’s almost a second quicker than the official 0-62mph time.

As a result, it leaves its rivals for dead in a drag race. There’s barely anything to split the Atto 3 and Niro, which are both noticeably less urgent away from the mark. This is partly because they have less powerful electric motors, but also because full power is deliberately restricted when pulling away to prevent the front wheels from spinning. The rear-wheel-drive #1 doesn’t have this issue; when accelerating, weight shifts backwards to push the rear tyres harder against the road, increasing traction.

BYD Atto 3 side

But while the Atto 3 and Niro won’t wow you with their acceleration, they’re still pretty quick by non-EV standards. Both can manage 0-60mph in less than 7.5sec; for context, the Ford Puma 1.0 Ecoboost 155 takes 8.9sec and the Volkswagen T-Roc 1.0 TSI a lengthy 11.0sec.

The absence of any gearshifts makes our contenders smooth and easy to drive at all speeds, and you can adjust the level of regenerative braking (which harvests energy when you lift off the accelerator pedal to help eke out range, with the side effect that the car slows more quickly). However, while the Niro and  #1 provide a setting strong enough that you rarely need to touch the brake pedal, the Atto 3 offers a choice of only two modes, and neither slows the car particularly dramatically.

Still, the Atto 3 feels at home in urban environments, where its soft suspension helps to take the sting out of larger imperfections and any cornering forces are likely to be minimal. Take it out onto a faster A or B-road, however, and you’ll wish for a bit more control. The body bounces noticeably over undulations, and there’s plenty of lean through corners.

Kia Niro EV side

The steering also disappoints; it’s lifeless at low to moderate speeds and then the wheel kicks back aggressively in your hands as you approach the limit of grip around bends. That supple ride at low speeds becomes increasingly fidgety the faster you go, too. 

The other two are more closely matched. The #1’s firmer suspension makes for a slightly choppy low-speed ride, but it’s actually the smoothest of the trio out on faster A-roads and motorways. The Niro isn’t far behind, though – and it’s the most composed and confidence-inspiring when you drive it quickly. Calling it ‘fun’ would be a stretch, but it grips well and its accurate steering allows you to position it exactly where you want it.

Meanwhile, the #1 feels more alert at low speeds, and the well-weighted steering impresses. It’s only when you push it harder through a series of bends that it starts to lose a little composure.

Smart #1 behind the wheel

More pertinent to many will be the #1’s hushed cruising manners (it’s quieter than its rivals at 70mph, with only moderate tyre noise disturbing the peace). The Niro recorded the highest decibel reading at that speed, although the incessant wind noise in the Atto 3 (from around the front pillars) is most annoying of all. 

How far you’ll be able to travel between charges will probably be of even more interest. In our real-world tests, the Niro averaged a very respectable 3.7 miles per kilowatt hour (kWh) on a mixture of roads, including simulated city, rural and motorway driving. This translates to a theoretical maximum range of 246 miles.  

The Atto 3 and #1 averaged 3.6 and 3.5 miles/kWh respectively in the same tests. That gives the former a maximum real-world range of 216 miles, versus 217 miles for the latter (its larger battery offsetting its inferior efficiency). In other words, they
all have enough range to tackle the occasional long trip.

Next: What are they like inside? >>

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