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.