Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Epilogue – Endgame?

Where next for the Eco-car?


Citroen Ami (Source: Automotive News Europe)

Having enjoyed researching and writing about our three eighties eco-concept marvels, what thoughts now come to mind about the current state of the small car market? After all, the future as predicted by the ECO 2000, for example, has long since passed.

The car as we know it is, without doubt, experiencing something of a fin de siècle. Personally, I have felt a growing sense that car design and development has plateaued, become complacent and intellectually flabby, with form increasingly disconnected from function. I have also realised that this is reflected in my writings for DTW, which recently has been focused very much on the past rather than today or the future.

So, much as I enjoyed writing this short series, it has left me a little flat in terms of thoughts about the status quo and the future. Cue a stream of consciousness …

Let’s go back to small car concepts and prototypes. I was trying to think of others since the 1980s trio that have registered on my radar. There have been a few, but not many. These include the Mini Spiritual twins, Audi A2, FIAT Ecobasic, VW XL1, Honda Urban and Sports EV concepts and the FIAT Centoventi. Interestingly, all of those apart from the two bookends made it into some form of production(1) and the Centoventi is apparently destined to be brought to market in production form in due course. Moreover, the latter three are all EVs.

VW XL1, the zenith of eco-concepts? (Source: Autocar)

The stand-out car amongst them is the XL1. This fantastic icon to Ferdinand Piëch’s vanity / vision can be considered either a folly or a tour-de-force depending on your perspective. Here is an eco-concept marvel made commercial and is, perhaps, the zenith of the genre. One could argue that it cheated by using a small diesel, but I think it still counts, at least because something similar was considered for the ECO 2000. This may be one of the reasons why one doesn’t witness so many eco-concepts anymore, although the steady but increasingly rapid demise of the physical motor-show and the impending demise of the internal combustion engine are more likely causes.

A special mention must go to the original Honda Insight, which was a production car, the design and engineering specification of which read more like an eco-concept car. In fact, the Insight looked a lot like one of the earlier ECO 2000 prototypes, especially from the rear.

Honda Insight seemed to miss the concept step (Source: Honest John Classics)

Of the Honda EVs mentioned, we wait to hear whether the Sports will ever surface on a price list anywhere, while the Urban turned into the relatively disappointing (but still nice) Honda-e. I realise that I should in principle be objecting to the Urban, Sports and ‘e’ because their respective forms do not at all follow function, but I love the way they look as though they could be ASIMO’s choice of wheels, and they at least present less shouty and aggressive demeanours than so many EVs today.

We’ve covered the A2 at DTW a few times before. It’s an odd car in some ways, hard to place in the market, and its arguable commercial failure probably sounded the death-knell for aluminium-bodied small cars. Still, it’s a car I’d very happily own, just not in TDi form.

I’ll stop there because here I am, doing it again, writing about the past. What of the status quo in small cars?

The first thing to be said is that there are few truly small cars anymore. Really, one should be talking only about those labelled as ‘city cars’. Sadly, these are diminishing in number and variety, although I often wonder why, because one sees so many of them on the road. We are losing both the VW and Stellantis group models, of which I shall mourn only the Up! Toyota is going it alone with the new Aygo X, but it has totally lost the small car plot by mutating it into some dumb crossover thing.

Incoming? The FIAT Centoventi EV (Source electrive.com)

Moreover, compared to their forebears, they are not small at all. I think I have written it before but, park a 500 next to a Cinquecento (if you can find one) and gasp at how huge even the current Tychy car is in comparison, while the new Turin-built 500e is even larger. I think it not at all fair to bring the Nuova 500 and Issigonis Mini into this argument, but consider this: the latest Skoda Fabia is longer, wider and taller than the Austin Maxi, and by a fair amount.

As I’ve mentioned the Fabia, let’s now consider the sub-compact / supermini class of today. It’s a long time since I was in, let alone drove, one of the current offerings, so the following comments are going to relate to what I have read, heard, or seen.

First, it’s clear that there is an abundance of competence amongst the cars of this class. They all seem to ride and handle at least to an acceptable level, have adequately smooth and powerful powertrains and most offer a choice of slick-enough manual or automatic transmissions. Interior space is generous to the point that the larger offerings threaten the logic of picking a car from the class above, but that’s because the class norm is that sub-compacts are now over 4m in length.

Personally, I find the most attractive of the current sub-compacts is the Clio, followed (probably) by the Ibiza and then the new Fabia. However, I’d not look askance at anyone preferring any of the others. The Fiesta is probably still the best to drive, but it suffers these days from an over-familiar silhouette and incongruous elements of styling which are the product of a facelift or two too many. It’s also falling behind in terms of packaging and diversity of powertrains. Perhaps that is why it dropped out of the Top 10 UK sellers in 2021 for the first time in decades.

My default choice among the current sub-compacts – the Jazz (Source: North Wales Honda)

Enough already. My point is that none of them really interest, let alone excite me. OK, so I am animalistically drawn to the Yaris GR, but that’s basically a homologation special, so doesn’t count. If someone were to insist that I buy a sub-compact today, I’d probably go for the Jazz. I like its interesting take on a hybrid powertrain, interior packaging, reliability via fine engineering and pleasantly clean styling. Oh dear, does that mark the start of my flightpath to retirement?

It seems to me that objectives like lightness, efficient use of fuel and space and compactness of footprint are no longer the primary objectives set for designers and engineers of small cars. Some of that has been down to the increased use of diesel engines in small cars as an easy, if unpleasant, way of reducing consumption and C02 emissions, whilst no one was worrying too much about NOx, of course.

Another factor is the demand for better crash avoidance / protection, something about which I never remember worrying in my AX or Cinquecento, both of which seemed so much better relative to the 2CV we once owned. Beyond that, preoccupation seems more to do with touchscreen size and the perceived quality of soft-touch plastics than taking chassis refinement to the next level. But then, I have long thought that The Jam were right when they sang that “the public gets what the public wants”.

So, what of the future? The future is electric, and digitally augmented. For automotive design, engineering, and marketing, it’s a whole new paradigm. So much that makes a car a car is now capable of being reset, which renders the need for eco-concepts redundant. Battery and charging efficiency is the new holy grail for engineers. Packaging possibilities are endless if batteries can be made compact and yet efficient enough to produce an acceptable range. This is essential for a small car to retain the versatility which has always been the at heart of its appeal.

However, most interesting is the challenge EVs present to hitherto assumed fundamentals of the automobile. These include aspects such as energy replenishment, supporting infrastructure, ownership, and even the role of the car manufacturer.

Whatever happened to the Ecobasic? (Source: Pinterest)

In this regard, there have been some notable developments recently under the Citroën banner. First, there was the Ami. In case you have been living under a rock recently, this is a small plastic shed on battery-powered wheels designed to move two people around an urban environment. There are nods to the 2CV, Renault Twizy and, if one is being unfair, the Reva G-Wiz. For me, it’s at its most thought-provoking when considered as the car equivalent of a Vélib for use on the streets of Paris. Are small cars destined to be limited to use as a municipal service?

Much more ambitious in this regard is Citroën’s Skate concept. It’s a modular EV consisting of a basic skateboard platform that can be equipped with differently themed pods and is designed for autonomous driving in dedicated traffic lanes. This ‘open source’ concept enables local governments or private companies to design pods for specific purposes. Could this be the spark for a re-emergence of dedicated carrozzerie builders, whilst ‘car’ manufacturers are left to design and manufacture the integrated motorised chassis platforms to which they can be attached?

The future? Brilliant concept, whatever the outcome (Source: Car Magazine)

In summary, I can see a scenario in which the evolution of the EV precipitates the demise of the small car, at least as a personal ownership proposition, in both the city car and sub-compact  segments. If fuel-efficiency is no longer a key factor and small cars are easily accessible for hire in urban contexts (the habitat in which they make the most sense), why would anyone want to purchase one? If, indeed, ownership of any car is still desirable, factors such as longer range and greater interior space and comfort, neither of which is intrinsic to small cars, will be prioritised.

So, we may have seen the endgame for eco-concept marvels. Could the demise of the small car as we know it be the next chapter of automotive history? If so, I’ll miss them, but then I realise that I’ve been missing them for a long time already.

(1) I am stretching it a bit to say that the Ecobasic informed the 2003 Panda.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

33 thoughts on “Eighties Eco-Concept Marvels: Epilogue – Endgame?”

  1. There is one car in this category that has never featured on this platform but is now in its twenty second year of production!
    Ive owned and enjoyed seven of them through the years and am amazed at the lack of a mention on driven to write, anyone care to guess the brand?

    1. Good morning D Gatewood. Wow, that’s a great question, and a real puzzle. A small car that has been in continuous production since 2001 with no model changes during this period? I’m stumped! We should definitely take a look at it, one we work out what it is, of course!

    2. I thought about the Alto, but its been through a few generations over this time. Even its Maruti cousin has done likewise.

  2. No correct guesses yet and this year will be its twenty third year in production as a brand and concept with only one major redesign. There were sports models that were only produced for three years, electric versions, convertibles, diesels, mild hybrids and the latest revision in still in production and they have been sold worldwide for years!

  3. Good morning S.V. and thank you for your interesting reflections on the future of the eco car and personal transportation.

    I can fully understand the applicability of the ‘hire car’ model you describe in high-density urban environments, but I cannot see it working in small towns such as the one in which I live (population 10k). For the model to work efficiently, one needs a large number of both vehicles and customers, to smooth out the usage patterns so that, a) there is always a vehicle available within walking distance when you need it and, b) the vehicles are used efficiently and not left idle for prolonged periods. That said, in large cities, however, it should be possible to use properly developed mass transit systems and only rarely have to resort to a ‘personal’ transportation devices.

    My partner and I now consciously use a car only when there is no viable alternative (walking, bus or train) available to us. As we are both retired and, not having to commute, this works we for us, but might not be viable for the majority, given that public transport systems are still patchy and unreliable. The Citroën Ami would be of little use to us because of its limited range and carrying capacity: we tend to use a car rather than public transport when we have something large or heavy to carry.

    1. @S.V. Robinson
      Yes, Smart it is and to my knowledge the brand has never featured on this site.
      I guess my interest in this minimalist format was stirred from a young age when bubble cars hit American shores in the fifties.
      Eons later having owned more cars than I care to admit too from V12’s to rotarys I’m still drawn to this concept.
      Thus when the Smart car was introduced at the end of the last century I was first in line and through the years have owned seven including two of the low built roadsters.
      They are well engineered with all required safety systems to meet crash standards ( no small feat in such a tiny car) and are a buzz to drive. Parking spots are always plentiful when in a Smart (8 feet long) and my present turbo diesel with its extra torque is a hoot to drive using the steering mounted paddle shifted sequential 5 speed.
      There is of course a choice of selecting full auto for a more leisurely pace with extreme economy and zero road tax being among other perks.
      I do admit im not a fan of the latest Smart purely on its styling or lack of.

    2. Hi D Gatewood. Coincidentally, we are just about to rectify that omission on DTW: we have a three-part series on the history of Smart and the company’s future prospects starting on Monday. Hope you enjoy. 🙂

  4. Surely the NCAP idea of safety sounded the death knell for small cars ? Would you want to be in a remotely small car that got hit by a new electric heavyweight ?
    I don’t want to think about city cars – I notice the enlarged ULEZ in London has engulfed the site of my old Grammar school so I will never go there again, other than by Google Earth.
    I currently have access to a recent Ford Mondeo which is the biggest car I have ever driven over distance ( though I drove the odd HGV before specific licences came along ). Great car for when you visit the DIY store, but not an ideal companion otherwise.

    1. Surely the NCAP idea of safety sounded the death knell for small cars ?
      Seems the Smart car is able to meet these standards as its been in production and selling in various markets for 24 years now!

  5. The Fabia is bigger than the Maxi – but is that because the Fabia is too big or the Maxi was too small?

    1. Have you ever sat in a Maxi? It’s huge inside and will a large well-shaped boot. Obviously it was designed before the world of air-bags, side protection bars, etc., and would have been considered quite a large car in its day.

  6. So many issues to consider here – an excellent piece S.V.! The Maxi was, if not exactly large by the standards of the day, certainly considered to be a medium size car with above average interior space. And it continued the Issigonis principle of providing the maximum possible interior space within a given footprint. Something which NCAP ideas on safety, as Mr Scott so rightly observes, have scuppered entirely. The trouble is, safety is a state of mind – yet another lost concept. Human nature being what it is, there is a point where the entirely proper development of safety features becomes counter-productive. NCAP ratings have led too many people (most?) to believe that a) collisions are inevitable and b) it doesn’t matter because they will be able to walk away from them undamaged. And so they drive accordingly.

    Those of us who regularly drive 40, 50, 60+ year old vehicles are very well versed in the art of defensive driving and tend to avoid motorways and fast dual carriageways. Our aim is as it always has been, to avoid having the collision in the first place. And we are also very aware of how much larger the present day equivalents of our cars are and how much more road space they seem to need – and how strangely cramped and claustrophobic their interiors seem.

    Daniel makes a highly relevant observation about the difference between transport needs and provision in rural or provincial areas and large conurbations. My working life was spent providing public transport in both arenas; starting with a decade from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s in rural areas where bus services had begun after WW1 linking small villages and outlying farms to local towns on Market days. By my time such services were in sharp decline, due entirely to car ownership, but we still carried large numbers of schoolchildren each day from the same remote areas into the same small towns where the comprehensive secondary schools were situated. The reality of life in such areas is that it cannot ever be possible to provide cost effective, let alone profitable, public transport and the ownership of some form of personal transport will always be necessary. And it will need to have four-wheel drive but not be so large that it cannot fit through standard farm gates or between dry-stone walls – and not be dependant upon a power supply that fails every time a gale brings down the overhead supply line….

    1. Hi John. You make an excellent point about driving standards being negatively impacted by drivers’ faith in passive safety features in modern cars. I learnt to drive over forty years ago, at a time when open road car accidents were usually serious and not infrequently fatal. My father, who taught me to drive, drummed into me the danger to both me and other road users of bring involved in an accident. I would in no way regard myself as an ‘expert’ driver but, thankfully, I’ve never been involved in a high-speed car accident, just the very occasional minor bump.

      I occasionally watch those dashcam videos on YouTube of car accidents and I am often amazed at the late or non-reaction of the driver to an obvious danger ahead. While, technically, the driver of the other vehicle might be at fault, the driver of the car with the dashcam could easily have mitigated or even avoided the accident had they been paying more attention (and not had their music cranked up to the maximum volume).

  7. Good afternoon, everyone. There is no business case for a small car anymore it’s as simple as that. The investments are huge and margins small. The demand is there, at least in the Netherlands. The Toyota Aygo, Citroën C1 and Peugeot C1 are everywhere.

    Personally I don’t see these at city cars. For a lot of people these are their only car and in other cases it’s the second car which is used as such, but not limited to the city. Having lived in cities big and small, here in the Netherlands and abroad I never felt the need to use a car within the city limits. Parking can be a real nightmare and very expansive too. I try to travel as much as I can outside of rush hour and prefer public transport or walking.

    Technically the Citroën Ami isn’t a car as you can drive one without a license. I really like the XL1, but it’s so rare and expansive it has a niche all of its own, I guess. The Honda Jazz is nice, but prices start at close to € 26k here in the Netherlands, which is close to a base model Mazda 3 for instance, so I am sure it will be a rare sight on our roads. Pity, I like it.

    1. Hi Freerk. Would the solution be simply to extend the production run of existing city cars indefinitely? The Up! and its siblings still look as fresh as daisies after a decade.

    2. Good morning, Daniel. I agree with you about the Up! and its siblings. The issue is that the European legislation will require more safety equipment in the future and the older platforms might not be able to support that, or it simply isn’t viable because of the price tag these systems carry.

      As of July 6th new cars are required to have ISA, I think it means Intelligent Speed Assistent, I think. ISA uses existing assistance systems such as cruise control, the navigation system, traffic sign recognition and the speed limiter. These systems pass on the speed limit on the road where you are driving to ISA. If you are speeding, the speed assistant warns you by means of a flashing light, sound or even by slowing down the car slightly or increasing the back pressure of the accelerator pedal. In the latter case, you can simply press the accelerator more deeply if you want to drive faster.

      The black box, similar to the one found in planes is coming too, apparently.

      When the Up! was launched its starting price was around € 10k. Now we are looking at close to € 18k. Some of that will be inflation, some of it might be caused by taxation, and some of it will be caused by more equipment. Also the cheaper 3 door model is no longer available. But a lot of people will think twice to spend that amount of cash.

      I sometimes ponder over these questions and I like the idea how for instance the B52 is kept up to date. Imagine a car like that: you can keep the body and underpinnings, but can change the means of propulsion, electronics and interior. A car like that might be closer to a Caprice or Crown Vic if I’m honest. I like small cars a lot, but also the polar opposite of these Yank tanks.

  8. Many friends and acquaintances of ours find it adventurous that we have a Lancia Y as our daily driver. (And they all have the same situation as us, married couple, no children (or already out of the house), no animals.)
    Too small!
    Too unsafe!
    (Yet the Y can do everything you need. Even longer journeys are no problem – Bruges and back was a trip without compromising on comfort).

    Here in the house there is an underground garage for all flats. Our Alfasud Sprint is parked there (this bitchy Italian doesn’t like rain, so we have to do an arragement). Of all the cars parked there, it is the smallest (!) – and everyone knows what a big car the Sprint is – and most of the residents have the same living situation as us: no kids, no animals.

    Of course I can understand the car companies if they no longer offer small cars. Bigger cars – bigger profits. And yes, the pathological desire for safety has also killed small cars. (But there is no such thing as safety, risk starts at birth.)
    So, The Jam were right when they sang that “the public gets what the public wants”.

    If one day the Y is no longer repairable, we have decided to buy a 2cv (again), even if we have to pay an eyewatering amount of money (for the same money you can get a used Bentley). All the new cars leave me cold. And all of them are way to big.

    1. Hi Fred. Here’s a thought. True or false: if everyone drove Lancia Y-sized cars, there would be far fewer serious accidents because drivers would feel more vulnerable and drive accordingly.

    2. Daniel, you are probably right – my daily experience shows me that you are certainly right.

    3. Hi Fred,
      Is that a Lancia Y10 you have? I owned one back in the eighties and loved it, had the alcantara interior, electric rear side vent windows and the facia/dash was up market with flip down panels that hid radio etc. It was quieter and of higher quality than the competition.

  9. Hi S.V., that’s some zeitgeist-catching you’re doing… It seems to provoke my own stream of consciousness. The elephantiasis suffered by the car industry is partly because of the safety measures demanded, partly because in response, manufacturers crammed more (heavy) luxury items into the cars and marketed these as ‘essential’. A bit like the smart phone market in the early 2010s where manufacturers found they needed bigger batteries to get their (not particularly efficient) designs through the day without charging and designed them with ever larger screens, which in turn drove demand from the buying public for large-screened phones. Couple that with the rightly much maligned SUV trend and the clinical diagnosis is clear. As Freerk mentions, there is nary a business case for small cars anymore, largely because of the two factors I mention above.

    I’ve always found the Peugeot 306 and 307 to be jarring examples of this pathology (image: AutoExpress):

    EVs are accelerating (no pun intended) this trend by being heavy and being most easily packaged as SUVs again. The Megane (in its conception if not its design) and the electric 500 (compact by current standards) show that manufacturers try to buck the trend, but whether they succeed will depend on some substantial breakthroughs in battery technology. In any case, the spiralling cost of car ownership might make it a rich man’s pursuit once again, where the demand for small cars only arose when cars became accessible to more people. Frankly, I fear for individual car ownership being within reach of the population at large.

    1. “Prediction is difficult- particularly when it involves the future.” — Mark Twain
      But what you can foresee – if you paid a little attention in arithmetic at school – is that it will go that way. Personal transport will become a matter of a few rich people. History does not repeat itself, but some generations have to live through some things themselves.

  10. True!! I did think of suggesting a big spike in the middle of the steering wheel but then decided that was perhaps a step too far. Massed Lancia Ys sounds rather appealing – and might SWMBO’s Panda be acceptable?

    1. Yes. It is almost certainly the case that we would have made significant progress in road safety over the last few decades if we had mandated a metal spike in the steering wheel instead of an airbag.

      And yes, a Panda is actually enough for 99% of all trips – unless you want to go on a brougham weekend tour, but there are relevant car hire companies for that.

  11. “Moreover, compared to their forebears, they are not small at all. I think I have written it before but, park a 500 next to a Cinquecento (if you can find one) and gasp at how huge even the current Tychy car is in comparison”

    I photographed this pair a couple of years ago. Perhaps the mobile phone camera is deceiving a bit, but in the flesh the difference was notable.

    1. Love that Cinq. It’s one of three cars I wish I had kept hold of – mine was a yellow Sporting and it was genius. Thanks for the photo.

    2. Another great photo which ably demonstrates the difference between sub-compact and small. It also underlines how the Tychy 500 is but a caricature of the original.

  12. I don’t think we’re finished with small and / or efficient cars, yet. A ‘breakthrough’ (very) small car in China has been the Wuling Mini EV. Autocar reviewed it last December:

    https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/features/china-your-hand-wuling-mini-ev-driven

    There are smaller cars coming from Europe, but they are a few years away. As size and weight of batteries is most critical in smaller cars, it could explain why these are being developed more slowly, in order to benefit from the latest smallest, lightest and most energy-dense batteries (along with manufacturers wanting to maximize profit margins on new technology by producing larger cars first, of course).

    I was on the road in the late afternoon, today and from the look of things, the car has some time to go before it falls out of favour. I also think that recent global events will make energy-efficient vehicles an absolute necessity.

  13. I would like to know. Europe with the same auto like in Japan. How many billions of liter of fuel could be saved? Toyota yaris and roomy are the first and the second most sold car in Japan. In Usa ford 150.

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