Today we reflect on the allure of shiny objects…
The matter to which we turn our attention today is the Chinese car market, which (and I burn with shame to admit this) for the most part has remained a matter of supreme indifference to me. This is a frightful dereliction of duty on my part; I ought, as one of DTW’s editorial team to observe a keen interest in all aspects of the auto business. China is after all, as we are continually reminded, the World’s largest car market. Mea culpa.
Earlier this week, I suggested that as cities move to discourage combustion-engined car use, manufacturers, owing to the cost implications of investing in new platforms and motive systems are likely to find making inexpensive small cars prohibitive, given the lack of profitability that exists under the current established and well-amortized model. Carmakers will not only be forced to pool resources, but it is also quite likely that at the point of sale, they will no longer be inexpensive, whatever they may cost to run.
Which brings us to today’s shining pebble from the beach. As we know, China is moving towards widespread electrification as it attempts to deal with a huge man-made environmental crisis. Currently, most of the electric cars available to buy in China appear to be straightforward conversions (assuming any such conversion can be described in such terms) of combustion-engined cars, with all of the compromises this would necessarily entail.
However, late last year, Arcfox, a new car brand from BJEV, itself a subsidiary of Chinese car giant BAIC (Beijing Auto) introduced the Lite, an electric car with a difference. Different because it is a purpose-designed compact EV city car and while it is not the first such vehicle to be built and marketed, it may well be the first to be offered by a Chinese carmaker for the domestic market.
The second point of departure is that the Arcfox Lite, rather than being marketed as an inexpensive runabout, is instead aimed at affluent city residents who are seeking as much a style statement as a means of salving their ecological consciences.
Since batteries are both space consuming and heavy, much effort it seems has been expended on designing a lightweight structure. According to Arcfox, the Lite’s Air Tech aluminium alloy frame, carbon fibre composite body, and plastic body panels offer a putative weight saving of 40%. Additionally, because the dashboard is made out of a magnesium alloy tube beam, it’s allegedly 30% lighter than a standard fitting. Claimed kerb weight is 895 kg.
Powering the Lite is an electric motor with 49 hp and 120 Nm, mated to a 16.4 KWh battery. The electric motor is mounted over the front axle, with the lithium ion batteries sited as is now usual practice, below the floor. Arcfox claim a range of 170 kilometres and a top speed of 110 km/h. Charging on a fast charger is said to take half an hour (to 80%).
Inside, the two-seater cabin is a technology overload, with three eight inch touchscreens dominating the fascia. Both driver and passenger have their own screens to distract them, with an additional centrally mounted one which they can, perhaps learn to share. Amongst the many novelties offered is the ability to display messages or symbols on display panels mounted between the head and tail lamps, which has the potential to make the daily traffic grind a good deal more ‘interesting’.
Interesting too is the Lite’s styling in that the design team clearly rejected a EV-centric appearance, preferring to adopt a more cheerful demeanour – something more akin to that of a Japanese Kei car – if perhaps a little less assured in execution. Hence the vaguely retro, yet still contemporary forms, the upright canopy, the three-volume silhouette and a spot of gratuitous Rüsselsheim C-pillar design cue appropriation.
With the advent of the Lite, Arcfox is perhaps offering a glimpse of a certain kind of urban vehicle – one aimed at the tech-savvy and affluent, which enjoys a monopoly within the Chinese market. But for how long? The Chris Bangle Associates-designed REDS city car is one putative approach to the same problem, although when (or if) it enters production is as yet unclear.
Gordon Murray has also been attempting to interest investors in his city car project and despite appreciative noises from the likes of Yamaha and breathless eulogies from the ever-restrained pen of Mr. S. Cropley esq, production seems as far away as ever.
What none of these vehicles of course addresses is that for a city car to be truly useful – especially within older, more cramped city streets – it needs to be narrow. So while the Arcfox’s design lends it an appealingly four-square stance, it confounds its usefulness to some extent – albeit, that’s hardly an issue in your average Chinese mega-city.
So should the Arcfox Lite offer a blueprint for future city cars, based on lightweight structures, electrification and one would hope, compact dimensions, or is it best left where it’s found? After all, as is frequently the case, the magic of stones, when taken back home, is left on the beach.
9 thoughts on “The Magic of Stones”
Good to have some chinese news. Thank you.
It’s even more difficult to fathom the workings of the Chinese car industry now that Tycho de Feijter has returned to The Netherlands and the formerly very interesting CarNewsChina website is no longer updating. We keep expecting an onslaught of Chinese vehicles in Europe, but no serious sign yet. Recently it was Qoros that was meant to be leading the charge, now it’s supposed to be Lynk&Co. Perhaps the ultra competitive (and contracting*) European market really isn’t worth bothering about when you have such a huge domestic potential customer base?
* The few urban based young people I know have no aspirations for car ownership. The minority who have driving licences will rent a car on the rare occasions they need one, and I can absolutely see the sense in that.
Interesting that here small car does not mean basic car, which is still pretty much the case in Europe as far as I can see. It’s still quite heavy though, by ICE standards isn’t it?
We had the Toyota IQ as a luxury small car which was unique but either it didn’t sell or Toyota pulled the plug for other reasons. I ran one after a couple of Smarts and found it better in this class due to equipment level and the option to carry a third or fourth passenger plus tighter turn circle, A family member still has an IQ,
The iQ was a very interesting car because it was one of the few ones having real innovation in their mechanical parts you can touch and see instead of in electrickery and software. Pity it didn’t sell.
In the next village from me there’s a Cygnet for sale at the Aston Martin HQ…
Seems rather like the Tazzari Zero that came to London a few years ago – there are a couple near where I live and they look nice. A 16KwH battery should give a winter range of 40 miles or so with reasonably efficient motor, regenerative braking and heater (small cabin will help here). As an updated G-Wiz it has its attractions and the 30 minutes fast-charge is realistic with some current fast chargers (22-50KwH). We had a G-Wiz and loved it – totally focused on one task – get you around locally with no bother and safer than a bicycle. Now we have a second-hand VW e-Up! – bought for a sensible cost at three years of age. 18ish KwH and mostly charged at home; winder range about 40-45 miles if using heating, lights and wipers. Got it in December so can’t speak for summer range, but hope it will be 60-70.
Make that “Winter” range, although the feeling of the rubber band fully unwinding is clearly close to the conscious surface!
I think all of these tiny-car projects are doomed to fail unfortunately, in China as much as elsewhere in the world. People do not want to drive motorized baby strollers. They want cars. For the most part, this is irrational, as an Arcfox Lite would serve one much better in Beijing city traffic then a G 63 AMG – but by and large people want the latter, not the former. If they can’t afford the latter, they will still try to get as close to it as they can. And if they cannot get close enough, they’ll rather have no car at all.
This is particularly true as in large Chinese cities one must first be awarded a license plate by the license plate lottery before even contemplating buying a car. And as many Chinese car owners will testify: if finally the state grants you the right to a car, you’d rather have a “proper” one.
That being said, regulation can be very powerful and China and could probably create a market for small electric vehicles, as exempting them from the license plate lottery could make them hugely attractive, despite their prestige-short comings. I am not entirely sure what the latest news on such policy is, it most likely has long been underway.
I think its about choice, some buy small city cars and others wouldn’t be seen dead in them. Smart has been active worldwide for 20 years now so one can hardly say there is no market.
Diversity is what makes life interesting and I for one would be most unhappy if there were no motorized baby strollers!