Renault's little Twizy aims to redefine urban transport. Jonathan Crouch tries it.
Defining Renault's Twizy isn't easy. It has four wheels - but isn't really a car. There's space for two - but only one front seat. There's a roof - but it's open at the sides. And it'll match the flow of traffic - but won't use an engine to do so. This is Renault's electric technology at its most extreme, offering perhaps the ultimate answer for city motoring. Perhaps even the kind of second car that all future families should have.
To be sustainable for the future of mankind, the automobile has to change. Maybe not change this much - but all the same, it has to change. This is Renault's Twizy, automotive transport, but not as we know it. The name is a supposed blend of the words 'two' and 'easy', the badge for this innovative French brand's solution to the issue of how people should get around their urban environment and complete the short, everyday, one or two-person journeys we all make that, if we're honest, don't really require a proper car. You see, this isn't really a proper car, even though it has four wheels and a steering wheel. As the looks suggest, it's actually a cross between a car and a scooter, something the motor industry calls a 'heavy quadricycle', the name defining a four-wheeled vehicle that weighs no more than 650kgs with a power output that's usually less than 20bhp. Not the kind of thing the average person would feel comfortable about driving. But is this? Well that's what we're here to find out.
You actually need a bootful of throttle to activate meaningful forward motion, but once your right foot's firmly planted, the Twizy displays the usual all-electric car feeling of up-and-at-'em performance, as all 57Nm of torque is delivered to the tarmac in one fell swoop, firing you to 30mph in around 6 seconds. Which isn't bad, considering that the electric motor generates only seventeen braked horses. But then it doesn't need much power to punt this little thing along, given that the kerb eight is only around 475kgs, less than half that of a conventional citycar. Around 100kgs of that is accounted for by the 6kWh lithion-ion battery pack that powers the AC motor, the battery centrally mounted and placed slow down to skim along a few inches above the road surface and offer the low centre of gravity that makes this machine such fun to punt around corners. And compensates for the tall and narrow design that really ought to make this car most unstable around corners. Credit for the fact that it isn't can be given to the enthusiasts at Renaultsport who supervised the handling development and added their F1 racing expertise to the regenerative braking system that charges the battery whenever you come off the throttle. Not that you often do. This thing's so much fun to drive, the temptation is to throw it around at max chat almost everywhere, or at least as much at max chat as a top speed of 50mph will allow. Which of course, isn't the cleverest thing to do if you want to maximise the necessarily meagre operating range - which at around 60 miles, is around 40% less than you'd get from other, larger electric cars. I'm not sure how that figure was arrived at, since I've never seen anything like it in my time with this car: 30, maybe edging up towards 40 miles is a better estimate. Still, that'll be more than enough for most urban commutes. And ride quality? Well, let's just say it's a bit on the firm side and you'll be looking to jink around potholes if possible.
The Twizy's styling looks like nothing we've ever seen before. The wheels flung out at each corner, the two seats in tandem and the way this wedge-shaped passenger cell sits nestled into the chassis - all of it marks the Twizy down as something resolutely unconventional. Getting in is relatively straightforward. My test car had the optional flip-up doors fitted and they're almost fingertip light on their gas struts but when in place, still only cover half the door height, partly explaining why, once you're seated behind the wheel, there's a rather odd arrangement of twin seat belts to contend with. Behind the driver, the single rear seat with its ordinary three-point belt is fixed in a single position and requires a nimbleness of limb when it comes to getting in and out. Once in situ, it's necessary to sit with your legs splayed around the front seat, though that's actually a lot more comfortable than it sounds. Renault has done a pretty good job of endowing the Twizy with a degree of practicality. There are two glove boxes incorporated into the dashboard and one of them's lockable, plus there's a lockable 31-litre trunk at the back which can easily take waterproofs or a change of clothes.
Assessing the Twizy's value proposition is rather awkward. After all, what do you compare it to? Probably, the smart fortwo electric drive is this model's only conceivable competitor, but even there, you're talking about something much more car-like which will cost you a few thousand more. Up-front asking prices are hobbled by the fact that, rather unfairly, this model (unlike Renault's other EV cars) doesn't qualify for the government's usual £5,000 PiCG Plug-in Car Grant for all-electric vehicles. Even so, it still seems very affordable, with list prices ranging from just under £7,000 to just under £8,000, depending on the trim level you choose. At first glance, that looks pretty good value when you consider that a high-end electric scooter like a Vectrix VX-1 will cost you over £7,000. Bear in mind though, that no all-electric Renault includes the cost of its battery in the asking price. For that, you've to take out a battery rental agreement with Renault, the cost of which will vary on your projected annual mileage and planned ownership period. At launch, the three year figures varied between £45 and £57 per month for annual mileages of between 4,500 and 9,000. For three years of driving, in other words, you've to budget for another couple of thousand pounds of outlay on top of the cost of the car. The model range is fairly simple with a few trim levels that really aren't that different to one another. The motive power remains exactly the same, it's just that should you ascend the range you eventually end up with gear like alloy wheels, metallic paint and floor mats.
When discussing cost of ownership figures of the Twizy, it all gets a little bit 'how long is a piece of string?' Clearly the range you can get out of this Renault depends very much on your driving style and the electricity bills will depend on how cost-effective your supplier is. Still, let's give you some idea. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you drive the thing in a heroically eco-manner and manage an average of 40 miles on one charge - and that your commute tots up to around 100 miles each week. A typical UK electricity tariff would see each charge costing around £1.50, so your weekly running cost in so-called 'fuel' terms would be less than £4. Sounds good doesn't it? But remember that to this, you've to add what'll be an average cost of around £13 a week for the battery rental contract that must be taken out in conjunction with Twizy purchase. Add to that slightly higher insurance premiums - the industry has unfairly pitched this Renault up at either group 10 or 11 on the 1-50 scale - and you'll probably be looking at a total weekly running cost that'll likely be about the same as you'd be looking at for a conventional citycar. But of course, it isn't as simple as that. In looking overall ownership costs, you've to take account of many other factors. Like the low asking price, congestion charge exemption, free parking in some cities and free passage over some toll bridges and cheap servicing.
Apple founder Steve Jobbs always contended that product development shouldn't be based around asking people what they wanted. Nothing really new ever gets invented like that. Forward thinking demands that you look at a problem - in this case, the way that the automobile industry uses 25% of the world's oil consumption and ramps up climate change by putting out 12% of all global Co2 emissions - and design a unique solution. Well, this Twizy is certainly unique. It isn't created to be an only car, to cover long distances or even to be especially practical. Which is great. After all, it's precisely because conventional citycars try to make themselves at least some of these things that they're less economic than for the future, they will need to be. If you spend your life nipping around town but can't bring yourself to buy the scooter you know in your heart of hearts would make more sense, then this Renault offers the answer. And, unlike most sensible solutions, it's affordable, it's desirable and it's fantastic fun. A scooter for people who like cars or a car for people who like scooters. I'm not sure which. But the definition doesn't matter. The end result does. The future - re-defined.
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