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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.