Taking full advantage of the Salone del Mobile, the premier Italian furniture and accessories show with exhibitors and events scattered throughout Milano, Renault brought along its new urban “crosser”, the Twizy, to much fanfare.
I first saw the Twizy just over a month ago at the Geneva International Motor Show where I was rather impressed with Renault’s zero emissions, all electric city car. There were a number of these “1+1″ concepts but Renault took the leap of faith to begin full factory, commercial production. So here it is, on the streets of Milano.
Anyone willing to sign a waiver had the opportunity to drive the Twizy around the congested, narrow, stone streets of the center of Milan. You could’ve pre-registered for the test drive via Facebook but judging on foot track alone, thanks to the furniture show exhibitions, these Twizys must have been taken out a few hundred times. They brought nothing but smiles and surprises (more on that later) to almost everyone who passed them by.
Of course, there’s the styling, which is rather obvious. There’s the skinny, 13 inch wheels in an open design (wheels outside the body work), pod-like body and that bug eyed face. The doors, or “side protection” as Renault calls them, open like those found on iconic Lamborghinis – vertically – and offer no protection against the elements, sans windows. There’s also that seating position that allows but one passenger to sit directly behind the driver. One can imagine that the roof line could have tapered right round to the centrally mounted, single tail light if not for the rear passenger head room.
Here in Italy, the Twizy comes in two versions: the Twizy 45 Urban, starting at 6,990 Euro, and the Twizy Urban, from 7,800 Euro. The main difference between the two is power. The 45 comes equipped with a 12 volt, 7 kilowatt-hour battery, with a 4 kilowatt (5hp) motor whereas the Urban’s motor doubles the kilowatts to 8 (13hp) but uses the same 12V, 7kWh capacity battery. This confuses me, so I had to re-learn a bit of grade school science.
ASIDE//The kilowatt is a unit of power, just like joules, or horsepower, and power is the rate at which energy is used or generated. The kilowatt-hour then is a measure of energy. SO, you can imagine that the capacity of a battery, measured in kWh, is like the size of your fuel tank. The bigger the fuel tank, the more fuel it can store. The motor then transforms the potential energy (fuel) into power; whether it’s gasoline to horsepower in the case of a conventional combustion engine, or chemical energy to electrical energy (kilowatt-hours to kilowatts) in electric motors. But here’s where it gets tricky. Batteries are also rated in kilowatts, just like electric motors. On the one hand, a high capacity, high kW battery means how quickly a battery is able to release its stored energy (charge). On the other, the kW rating of a motor is the amount energy it will draw from it’s power source, i.e. the battery. Get it? However the kW (power) ratings of the Twizy are clearly on the motor side since we know that both cars use the same 7 kwh battery. Therefore, opting for the higher output motor, the 8kW version, you would (in theory) discharge the battery at double the rate of the 4kW motor, in turn, reducing your driving range.
With the math out of the way, the real world range of the Twizy is about 90 kilometers in the 8kW version. As far as costs go though, there’s more. See Renault will gladly sell you the car but you have to rent its battery. And it doesn’t come cheap: 50 Euro a month. They say the price includes full a warranty of not just the battery but of the entire car. In an age where paying extra for something that should be pretty standard, it does nothing but hinder sales efforts, especially at 50 Euro a month which is probably 30-40% on top of the monthly financing cost.
Keep in mind that this is not trying to be anything but a city vehicle. It’s like the offspring of a Smart Fortwo and a BMW C1: same 1+1 seating position of the C1, about the same length and similar roof enclosure, but with a proper steering wheel and four tires.
Then there’s the interior. Very clean, simple and seemingly water resistant – on account of not having windows. The dash is free of clutter with just a few buttons to select drive, neutral or reverse, while all car data is read out from a dated-looking digital screen. Then again, any dashboard could be this clutter-free without a radio, heater, or navigation system. The driver’s seat looks racy but under you it feels like they took it off an arcade racing game instead of a sports car – quite firm. However, it’s more than I can say for the rear passenger seat which looks like a bit of padding a mere inches off the the floor. Headroom is abundant though and because there are no door pillars, there are no blind spots. Of course, it does have side mirrors but with no door pillars obstructing your view shoulder checks are easy.
After a waiting 20 minutes it was my turn to take it out.
Ok so after strapping in, you put what looks like a key into what seems like an ignition, turn it clockwise, hold it, wait for a little beep and then… silence. If it wasn’t for that beep you couldn’t tell the little Twizy was actually on – it’s just that quiet. Eerily quiet though. As we set off, there was no problem sneaking right up behind pedestrians. The car has the old Ferrari-like horn position located not in the centre of the steering wheel but on the left indicator switch. And it’s super loud, like air-horn loud. So Filippo and I made a game of getting up behind pedestrians who were busy window shopping, sounding the horn, then watching as they jumped out of their shoes. We soon grew tired of that though and Filippo was quick to direct me to some less crowded streets. I imagined the test ride to last no more than encircling a city block however, as we drove on, it became evident to me that Fil’ wasn’t just some hired help for this event just as he realized I wasn’t some random passerby taking a novelty car out for kicks. No, Fil’ was a genuine car guy, working as an engine technician for ten years and a bona fide weekend racer. Of course, I told him I was a blogger of all things automotive and so with that, our test ride lasted a good half hour. Let me validate this the necessity of that short story. Normally, thirty minutes in a new car isn’t enough time to pass any judgement on it or to critique it properly. For instance, if one is debating the purchase of a new sports car, like the BMW M3 or Mercedes C63, it’s not like he can ask the dealership, do you mind if I take it for a quick spin on the track, see if it’s any good? Where taking a sports car for a spin around the dealership may not give you any indication of the car’s performance merit, potential or capacity, driving the Twizy for a half hour in the crowded centre of Milan during rush hour on a Saturday does. This is what is was made for.
And it performed brilliantly. In most spots, you could squeeze by cueing traffic like a scooter. It’s turning radius is excellent which made tight maneuvers a breeze. With no power steering, the steering wheel was resistant but not so much as to feel heavy. Being a zero emission vehicle, it’s treated like a motorcycle or scooter and thus exempt from Milan’s Area C congestion tax. We never stopped to park but I can imagine parking one of these to be a simple task. Much like the Smart, you could even park it perpendicular to the curb. And then there’s the noise, or lack thereof. At speeds above 25 km/h you do begin to hear some whining from the electric motor but nothing intolerable. It’s mostly just wind noise coming in around the open sides and ambient sounds.
This is the first, all-electric vehicle I’ve driven outside of a golf course. And like an electric golf cart then, its power delivery was quite linear, progressive. You could even feather the throttle without any hiccuping or lurching. The brakes felt fine but then again we never got up to any speed to test them really. Overall it felt great, but the lack of noise gave it a real sense of refinement.
My only gripe with the Twizy, is its suspension. From outside the car, you could clearly see it had coil springs surrounding what appear to be dampers. But driving along the crude stone roads of Milan you wonder, are they’re actually working parts or decoration? At one point, as I stomped on the the accelerator, I drove over street car tracks embedded in a stone road surface and the car jumped two feet to the right. Driving it over anything but a smooth surface is nearly intolerable. Combining the lack of suspension with a hard plastic seat makes you feel every bump with your liver. I kinda feel bad for Fil’ who had nothing but that paper thin seat for padding. He even admitted that suspension needed some softening up.
At the end of the day, the Twizy needs to be re-charged like your cell phone. And like your cell phone, you can plug it in to any standard 220V outlet via an adapter. Even more like your cell phone, it takes around 3.5 hours to fully charge.
After seeing it in Geneva, I predicted the Twizy would be a sales success. It looked stupid cute and fun to drive. Seemed to offer about the same practicality as a scooter with a roof and doors. Its decent range and relatively quick recharge time, on paper at least, makes it ideal for commutes to and from work. Of course, I may have had too much Geneva Auto Show enthusiasm wash over me at the time. After seeing it on the street, in the real world, with the Milanese peering over it, I have to change my prediction. Although “the people” did find it cute and I can admit it was fun to drive I fear that’s where the high praise stops. What I didn’t realize was that the car I saw at Geneva was going to be the production version, which is somewhat disappointing. You see I thought that surely, by the time the production model comes out, it would have a proper set of doors which would include windows. Or, that the dash would be outfitted with a radio and maybe even a heater. I also assumed that final version would come with suspension. Then there’s the price. The higher output 8kW version with side protectors comes in at 8,500 Euro before tax, which is a lot to ask from a car with no weather proofing. Then of course, there’s the battery rental charge, which by my math, comes to an additional 600 Euro a year and effectively eliminates any cost savings benefit of not using pump gas.
So, is the Twizy a viable commuter alternative or a dressed up golf cart? Let’s see how it sells.
Special thanks to Fadua Aoukar for helping out with the photos.