Mia urban electric vehicle.
Mia urban electric vehicle originally photographed by the author at the 2010 Geneva auto show.

Mia Finally Takes Flight

It could be the Phoenix of urban electric vehicles

By Martin Schwoerer

All you need to make a successful, genre-defining car is a brilliant idea based on a crystal-clear understanding of societal needs; and a mountain of money. (No, make that two mountains of money.)

Some examples? The Citroen 2CV recognized that post-war France was going to have enough purchasing power for cars, but that demographics and values were still largely rural, so a mass-produced car needed to be spacious, comfortable, cheap and robust. The Renault 4 recognized how, later, even basic transportation needed to be more powerful, to fit a less-rural, more frantic lifestyle. In the US, the Toyota Camry reflected how much more sophisticated American consumers had become in the 1970s and 1980s, and how they yearned for a quality product, and how they had learned to disregard pleas to make buying a car an act of patriotism.

At the present time, car makers are trying to make sense of two trends that are staring them right in the face. First, the growth of the mega-city: for the first time in history, most people now live in urban or semi-urban settings, and they just don't have any place to park their cars.

Second, young people all over the world are saying they don't really want to own a car. Own a mobile phone and a computer: yes, but a car? That is just something that creates a hassle.

What's a car maker to do? Mercedes is thinking about car sharing, i.e. providing Smarts to people when and where they need them. As another example, Peugeot is going a step further with Mu, a service to which you subscribe to get a Peugeot bicycle, car or truck, depending on what you might need at any particular point in time.

But where are the vehicles that are tailored to the new generation of urban car-unbelievers? Mercedes, oddly, relies on the Smart, which crashes well and fits into tiny parking spaces but isn't really good at anything else. No wonder, then, that somebody thought: "The ideal urban car needs to be something completely new".

That "somebody" is Murat Günak, famous car designer, former head of design first at Peugeot, then at Mercedes, finally at Volkswagen. He penned the original C-class Mercedes, the first-gen SLK, the Passat CC, as well as numerous other vehicles.

Here's what Günak's thoughts might have been (us journalists, we do take our liberties). The ideal urban car needs to be short for parking, but should have ample space for at least three persons. It should be light and should be electric. It needs to be simple and robust, to survive the wear-and-tear of car sharing. Easy-to-drive and great visibility are requirements, too. It has to be "chic", in order to make it a must-use for sexy young urban people.

Also, why should EVs always be no more than adapted "normal" cars? Shouldn't an EV be different from the ground up?

About two years ago, Günak came up with a brilliant idea. His urban car would have a central driver's seat for excellent visibility, and two seats located offset behind the driver's seat, offering excellent legroom. The car would have a minibus shape with sliding doors, for maximum space utilization and excellent entry and egress. Lo and behold, a car that is comfortable, fantastic to park, has plenty of space for shopping or for kid's seats. And he would call it "Mia", a cute, emotionally appealing name.

With his background and his breathtakingly persuasive concept, Günak found it easy to find an industrial partner: France's Heuliez, a company that had been making special car bodies as well as small-series electric cars for decades.

Then, the financial crisis struck, and Heuliez became insolvent. And Mia looked hopeless.

I first spoke with Günak at the Geneva Salon 2010, where the first delightful Mia prototypes were shown. https://picasaweb.google.com/martin.schwoerer/Geneva#5444008140433838930

The 2010 Mia is pretty similar to today's designs. At 287 cm's length, the Mia is slightly longer than a Smart, but weighs only around 780 KG. It uses simple and reliable Lithium-Ion phosphate batteries, with a capacity of (depending on version) 8 or 12 KwH. Power is 18 kW, range is 80 to 130 KMs, and the Mia's top speed is 110 km/h (65 mph).

At the Geneva Salon 2010, Günak was optimistic about getting additional financing from Turkish investors, but in hindsight, he did seem to have an inkling of the problems ahead with Heuliez.

Surprisingly, only one year later, the remains of Heuliez have been incorporated into a new company aptly named Mia, and this Mia appears to be a pretty strong entity.

Several financially potent German investors have come to the rescue. Kohl-Gruppe, a pharmaceutical services company, knows urban med-care markets, and sees great opportunity for a lightweight electric delivery van, as well as for a car that senior citizens can use to get around (but not for traveling long distances).

Mia's other financial partners are energy services and utilities, as well as regional governmental entities.

So, financing seems to be sufficient to begin production in June 2011; the plan is for 6,000 units to be built by the end of 2011.

What else has changed since 2010? Well, in addition, there is now a longer-wheelbase mini box van and four-seater Mia L. The car's interior has changed too. It is now less iPhone-esque (no more white shiny steering wheel), and more masculine, with leather accents and darker colors. There's a slot for an iPad, too.

In 2010, Günak spoke of a sensationally low price of around €15,000. That may have been a bit optimistic, and Mia is now projected to sell from around 20k Euros (net). That is a very good (battery-included) price for a practical, European-built EV.

Does this new car company have a chance? On the pro side, I can report that the Mia is immensely appealing both from within and without. As a passenger, you can actually stretch your legs. The view from the cockpit is fantastic, as it is both aesthetically appealing (you'll get no cheap-car blues here) and offers great visibility.

From the outside, the Mia is funky, cheerful and functional, and quite convincing.

Questions remain about the safety of such a lightweight car. Yes, an urban car does not -- actually, should not -- have all the protection that an autobahn-stormer provides. Mia's claim of good stability and excellent side-impact protection from the wheels that are located at the car's extreme corners is reassuring. However, will the industry-fed press not pounce on Mia if some freak accident causes this light car to break apart? You can't expect fair treatment from people like Jeremy Clarkson. And FUD is a major business itself, especially when it benefits established industry players.

The car company formerly known as Heuliez also has its work cut out if it wants to deliver a high-quality product by the beginning of this summer. As impressive the prototypes displayed in Geneva are, one of the car's sliding doors was rather worse for wear.

If Mia is as good as promised, then don't be surprised by its success. It looks great, is immensely practical, would fit the urban lifestyle like a glove, and is affordable. 2011 and 2012 are likely to be exciting years.

Times Article Viewed: 8974
Published: 06-Mar-2011


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