France's Volteis: The First Electric 4X4
Some ideas are so obvious. So be prepared to scratch your head and ask: why didn't I think of that? A jeep straight out of the 1940s, simple and compact. A stainless-steel chassis and aluminum bodywork. And 4x4 electric propulsion. The concept sounds great and the finished vehicle looks better -- but is the end-result any good?
But first, some details. The Electric Car Company (EC) is located in rural France, in the Ardèche. At the recent electric car show eCarTec in Munich (Germany), EC's Jean-Noel Peysson explained that their aim was to provide an ecological, rugged, small car for rural institutions such as forest administrations, national park services, or for beach maintenance personnel. Another key area where Peysson sees demand is from rural professionals: vineyards, farms, or veterinarians. EC saw a market for a highly-manoeverable 4x4 that would be affordable, require extremely low maintenence and cater to green sensibilities. After all, why should a maker of organic wine take a large SUV to go shopping at a local market?
Apart from professional uses, Volteis is also made for (and sold to) people with a second house in the country: an electric car is low-maintenance and does not suffer from being kept in storage for months on end (as long as it is connected to an electric mains). Conceivably, an electric Jeep can be seen as the chic thing to drive, as well.
As with most electric vehicles, it was important to keep it small and light. Thus, the Volteis is a very short (just over 3 meters), very lightweight (740 KG) car that seats 2 + 2. (The rear seats, in keeping in Jeep tradition, face each other, sideways).
EC wanted to invoke the simplicity of the original Jeep, as well as some cars inspired by Jeep for basic-yet-fun rural transportation: the 1960's Mini Moke, or the Citroen Méhari. (Both the Moke and the Méhari are today highly-coveted vehicles that command higher prices used than they ever did new).
The radical simplicity of the propulsion system rivals that of the 2-cylinder Méhari. Two motors (one per axle) for permanent four-wheel drive, but only 8 kWs of power. Primitive lead-acid batteries (48-240 V-Ah). A top speed of 70 km/h and a range of 60km: enough for simple rural purposes, but for no more. And, quite importantly, a quite low price of €17,000 (which goes down to 12k to 15k Euros, depending on the local level of government subsidy).
But how does it drive? At eCarTec, I was given the opportunity for a few minute's spin, and can report that it felt quite satisfactory. Headroom and legroom are fine for two in the front; the placement of the “gas” pedal is slightly offset but all interior controls looked and felt solid, as in an original Jeep. (True to the spartan character of the Volteis, the interior is all-metal -- no soft plastics like in a SUV, thank you). The steering felt fine: direct, lightweight and precise, in contrast to the wooden, unassisted brake pedal.
Acceleration was (to put it kindly) calm, yet the Volteis did not feel underpowered until it started to run out of puff at around 55 km/h. Since the test track was on a level parking lot, I'll have to take at face value M. Peysson's assurance that the Volteis can handle a 60% approach gradiant and has no problem keeping up with traffic in mountains. In any case, 4WD in combination with a microscopic 3.3M turning radius and independent suspension made the Volteis a fun drive -- chuckable and light-footed.
Heating is provided by a Webasto gas-burning unit (the way it should be: electric power is highly efficient for propulsion, but not good for heating).
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