Frankfurt's Half-Ton Heroes
At this year's Frankfurt IAA car show, one of the main stars was VW's Up: a high-quality minicar that symbolizes VW's new, semi-spartan yet high-quality design language. It is a pleasant, simple car for the Everyman in the way that the iPod is a pleasant, simple MP3 player for everybody. In contrast to new cars of recent years, it is rather light-weight too: at less than a ton, trim enough to make do with a new, tiny, 1-liter 3-cylinder engine.
The real stars of the IAA however were a number of concept cars that weigh in, on the average, at *half* the mass of the Up. That's right: pint-size, featherweight commuter cars were the talk of the town -- and they were all electric.
Some showcased quite brilliant ideas, some were downright sexy, and all were highly interesting. All of their makers claim they could make it to market within 2-3 years, since the technology is already available. (And all were tailored to Europe's "Quad", or light-car regulation which goes easy on the crash-testing for lightweight vehicles).
Here's an overview.
Who is Nils, and how did he get his name? A spokesperson in Frankfurt confirmed that no, this car was not the fastidious and fussy brother of Frasier Crane. VW just likes to use real names for concept projects. While this vehicle may have a weird moniker, its objective is pretty clear: to be a single person commuter car that is 100% electric, has a low cost, is fun to drive, and is still quite safe.
How safe? Well, it has three airbags and a stiff space-frame, and VW claims it is almost as safe as a conventional car. And very lightweight too, thanks to its aluminum body: 460 kilos of lightness.
With a top speed of 130 km/h, this minuscule car that is only a good three meters long sounds like a racer. Its range of 65 KM befits a pure commuter.
Another part of the design brief was to make Nils easily and clearly identifiable as a VW, and indeed, the car on display had the usual tight panel gaps and looked like more than just a squeaky mock-up.
What is the difference to cars like Renault's electric Twizy that will be entering the European market shortly? First of all, Twizy is an open-sided vehicle; Nils is intended to be much more comfortable. Even though it lacks air-conditioning, it is a four-seasons car. Commuters drive solo 90% of the time, says VW, and if you offer an affordable commuter car that doesn't feel like a penalty box -- and has enough creature comforts -- there may be a pretty sizable market for one.
Under the bright lights of the Frankfurt show, Nils looked very nice: quite sporty but not like something made for the amateur race track. It is very small yet not fragile; futuristic yet not weird. VW says it is intended to work as a full-fledged car, which is a believable claim. Full points to VW for this clean design, even if expectations are low for VW actually bringing this kind of sub-Up VW to market.
Audi Urban Concept
Audi's spokesperson didn't seem to appreciate questions. How come both Audi and VW have sporty micro-commuter cars at the Frankfurt show? "Don't ask me, I don't work for VW, and we only heard of the Nils two weeks ago". How would you compare it to the Twizy? "What do you want me to tell you about a competitor, I work for Audi". Do you really think the Audi's giant single-frame grille works on a car so small? "Of course, otherwise we wouldn't have done it this way". Well thank you so much, charming young fellow.
Here are the facts: The Audi Urban Concept weighs in at less than 500 kilos because it uses considerable amounts of carbon fiber. It is a two-seater (with a offset layout), sporting an electric motor rated at 15kW which propels it to 100 km/h and enables a range of more than 100 kms. Very luxurious inside, this Audi would adhere to its company's premium brand strategy and cost well over 10k Euros.
And here are some opinions: since Audi has no plans, as it has been said, to sell a car in VW's minicar Up category, why would they make a sub-Up? As to the Urban Concept's style: a small fellow with a snarl on his face is often a picture of insecurity. Audi's "I eat other cars for breakfast" grille works on large cars, looks somewhat misplaced on the A3, and is odd on this concept vehicle which, one might predict, has no chance to make it to the marketplace, and therefore has earned the label "alibi-mobile".
Opel RAK e
In Frankfurt, VW showed a commuter that looks simple, practical and conceivable; Audi showed an over-the-top microsportster that tries to blend minuscule size with premium brand values; and as for Opel / GM: what on earth is this?
Richard Shaw, a Chief Designer at Opel, told me: "Every concept car tries to tell a little story. Our RAK e is about making a car very cheap, very fun, and very desirable and very green". The time, he said, was right for this kind of car: people want to be mobile without worrying about fuel prices, exhaust emissions, or safety. And they want to provide mobility to all family members. Thus, the RAK could also be made in a down tuned version, in accordance to EU law, to be driven by 16-year olds.
Some data: Top speed 120 km/h; a range of 100 kms; it weighs in at only 380 Kg, price under 12k Euros because the RAK e does not use any exotic materials like carbon fiber. This Opel's running costs are projected to be around one Euro per 100 kilometers. It has a flexible hatch/roof design: closed for cold or wet weather; slightly open ("intermediate position") for warm days (alleviating the need for air conditioning), topless for beautiful summer cruising. The car's pedals are adjustable, because the seats are not -- which is a typical way to improve on the stability of a featherweight vehicle. Two sit behind each other in this very short (3 meters length), low (119 cm) car.
Shaw said the RAK e is "more approachable" than VW and Audi's designs, which would fit Opel's branding philosophy of not putting on airs. Still, it is intended to be a safe design, with high-tensile steel and a space frame. I found it quite beautiful, as well as an immensely appealing idea for everyday transport.
Now, for something completely different. Two hundred employees and students at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) set out to show the industry how a small electric car could be efficient, simple, lightweight, safe and affordable.
How affordable is MUTE (which stands for "Munich University + Electric")? Their target was a TCO (total cost of ownership) no higher than for a small, conventional, internal-combustion car.
As in the case of the other concepts, adheres to the EU's L7e Quad-car standards. It is extremely lightweight, at 400 Kg, of which 100KG is due to its battery. However, not least because of its aluminum space frame, it passes safety regulations for normal, full-sized cars. (Mute employs in addition crash boxes made of fiber-reinforced plastic). With a 15 kW motor, it reaches a top speed of 120 km/h. Mute's low weight allows it to use a small battery which still enables a range of 100 km.
In contrast to the other three concepts portrayed in this article, Mute is a relatively normal-looking two-seater with regular doors and no race car-type outboard wheels. It has a large, almost Jetta-sized trunk, as well. It may look -- depending on your point of view - frumpier, or less futuristic than the other half-ton heroes, but its developers say it will be as fun to drive. This is because Mute has rear-wheel drive and employs the technically sophisticated approach of torque vectoring, meaning, energy is applied to the wheel that can use it the most. Mute also applies torque vectoring for regeneration, so when you brake in a curve, up to double as much energy gets transmitted back to the batteries.
Heroes on the horizon?
Are these extravagant microcars the next big thing? Will you be able to order one at your local VW dealer in 2014? As inspirational as they are, don't count on it. VW, GM and the academic world envision a possible future in which cities are actually willing and able to vanquish air pollution and reduce noise. They would prohibit Diesels and create expensive barriers to entry for most internal-combustion cars. What would follow? Obviously, affordable, small, safe and enjoyable electric cars would be the logical consequence. It's good to know that car makers are hedging their bets.
All photos copyright Martin Schwoerer
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