The Little Twizy that Could


[Image credit: Renault]

The fantastic Renault Twizy is the most significant new vehicle in the lower end of the market since the introduction of the Smart ForTwo over a decade ago*. It is also the very first vehicle from a major manufacturer to be designed from scratch as an electric car (Leafs and Volts carry over many parts from other vehicles).

The little Twizy is, of course, a tandem two seater, which is one of its biggest assets but also, in my opinion, one of its liabilities. Let me explain.

Despite the fact that most of us do most of our trips alone, we still see driving as a communal experience. Solo trips tend to fade from our memory, and we prefer to remember the good rides: holidays with the family (as a kid or as a parent), romantic let's take the long road home, honey strolls, nights out with our friends... a minimum of two seats seems, therefore, essential. As essential, perhaps, as the capability to drive 300 miles any time any day (although the so called range anxiety should be a topic for another day).

It's no surprise then that when carefully studying the EU quadricycle legislation (page four on this pdf), Renault decided to produce a two seater. And what a perfect example of the spirit behind the quadricycle legislation, the Renault Twizy is: both its power (15 kW) and weight (350 kg before batteries) are at the limit of the law, a law that interestingly limits power and weight but not top speed; capable of 75 km/h (47 mph) the Twizy should be legal for highway use in the EU, where the minimum speed in motorways is 60 km/h (37 mph). SInce achieving such a low weight (at a decent price) was no doubt the main challenge, Renault decided against copying normal cars like the Smart and they went for a tandem configuration, allowing for an extraordinarily compact footprint, and hence a low weight. And low weight is key to achieve the overall efficiency needed for EVs to work well.

What a tandem configuration cannot do is to bend the laws of physics, and here comes the liability (from a US -centric perspective, I have to admit): the main reason for a manufacturer to produce a quadricycle is to avoid expensive crash regulations. With its ultra narrow body, and with the rear passenger head so close to the driver's, it's hard to believe that the Twizy would do good in the Euro-NCAP or FMVSS crash test. Its narrow track might also be an issue in the new US rollover test.

Is this a problem? I think it all comes down to consumer education and expectations. For many decades, people have been allowed to buy 100-plus hp motorcycles and kill themselves at the dmv parking lot, if they chose to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, most pick-up trucks and full size SUVs can only be considered irresponsible and dangerous crashing weapons, with their complete disregard for any other object on the road. It would be inconsistent to speak against vehicles like the Twizy when the aforementioned extreme examples are perfectly legal both in Europe and the US. For the big majority of people (who most likely drive in urban environments for short stints), cars like the Twizy are more than enough, providing the much needed link between quick but dangerous scooters and safe but inefficient automobiles, a link sorely needed if we want to move away from our obsolete ways of motoring. It goes without saying, the Twizy is the perfect vehicle for car-sharing organizations in the EU, and I bet Autolib is looking in looking into it.

What about the US? With a Medium Speed Vehicle legislation going nowhere (a flawed proposal anyway, since 35 mph is still too slow for highway use), there are only two ways to go (if we also want four wheels not three):  the 25 mph NEV way, or the serious way , getting FMVSS approval. Our goal at itMoves was always the latter, and by removing that extra passenger seat, we showed a way to combine safety (keeping the crash away from the driver) with high efficiency (330 kg before batteries is an achievable target, like the Twizy shows).


[PS credit: itMoves + Renault]

I still remember when I first saw the Twizy concept. I was at the beginning of pitching itMoves and ME, and my first thought was That's it, we are done. The vague concept images, with its tall and narrow body and outside wheels, said one seat EV to me. For a while, it looked like the small window of novelty that any start-up desperately needs had been closed, and not just by another startup, but by a major manufacturer **. But in the end, by deciding to go instead for a two seater configuration, Renault (and its partner Nissan) has very much admitted they have no intention of introducing anything like the Twizy in the US market.

The space for an ultra efficient, highway capable, personal mobility EV (for sale or for car-sharing) is still open.

I believe the need is still there.


* At the other end of the spectrum, Ford managed to pull off something similar with $140,000 GT, back in 2004.

** The fact that I felt, at the time, terribly paranoid about showing any image of itMoves didn't help either. Today, thinking about NDAs for just makes me laugh. Good ideas are worthless; only good ideas that get funded and developed are worth protecting.


Nov. 2 update: Nissan just announced the NISSAN New Mobility CONCEPT (from Autoblog), mixing a Twizy clone (in what looks like two lightly photoshopped images) with what they call 2-mode EV car sharing (allowing sharing of private vehicles during business hours). Of course, there is no word about the US market. They also mention it's just a proposal... Like with any other EV concept from a major manufacturer, I'll Believe it When I See it.