Citroën Berlingo "First" Is Last of an EV Breed

By · March 16, 2011

Very few electric cars are available to buy, but here's one that has been on the market for more than an year in Europe: the Citroën Berlingo First.

It's far from new, as the diesel version has been available for more than 10 years. There was even an electric version 10 years ago. Sadly, Citroën stopped producing it in late 2002 as theere were not enough sales to make production profitable. That marked the end of the electric car at the Peugeot-Citroën group.

The Citroën Berlingo First électrique by Venturi

The Citroën Berlingo First électrique by Venturi

It could have ended here, and everybody thought it had, but things changed in 2007. That was when the French postal service "La poste" announced that it was looking to buy several hundreds electric cars. Large car manufacturers didn't respond, but Venturi did. The tiny company is famous for its Fetish electric sports car, but it only makes a handful a year. Venturi saw a huge opportunity to expand its business and it started development of an electric drive for a vehicle that would suit a postman's needs.

Of course, for time and cost reasons—designing a car from the ground up was out of the question—Venturi had to chose a preexisting vehicle which it could convert to electric. Quite surprinsigly, Venturi chose the Citroën Berlingo. But the electric propulsion system it designed was totally different from what Citroën engineers did 10 years before. Venturi's system is unique, so much that I haven't seen any other car like it. Everything is under the hood. I mean, the motor, its controller and the battery. You can see the battery on top in its shiny metal casing below.

Under the hood of the Citroën Berlingo First électrique by Venturi

Under the hood of the Citroën Berlingo First électrique by Venturi

With Zebra Batteries

That is possible with a compact electric motor (21 kW and 133 lbs/ft of torque) and a 23.5 kWh battery. Real world range is 75 miles. Not much, but more than enough for French postal duties. The battery is a Zebra, and those are great. They don't make the headlines anymore with lithium ion everywhere, but Zebra batteries are cheaper, longer lasting and absolutely non toxic because their electrolyte is molten salt—molten sodium aluminumchloride (NaAlCl4) to be exact. The only thing inconvenient about them is that they operate at high temperature, about 500 °F. I took the picture (above) on the second day of the motor show in Geneva and the car's battery was still warm to the touch. I guess it had been parked there at least two days before. But a great point is that Zebra batteries hardly have a shelf life like lithium ones do. You can charge a Zebra, leave it for a year, and after that you'll just need to warm it up—the electricity will still be there. It can also support many more than 1,000 cycles.

The Citroën Berlingo First électrique by Venturi in yellow livery, as used by the French postal service

The Citroën Berlingo First électrique by Venturi in yellow livery, as used by the French postal service

The cars leave the Citroën factory without an engine. They are then shipped to the Venturi factory near Le Mans where they receive their electric powertrain. This is an expensive way of doing and it shows in the price of the Citroën Berlingo First électrique by Venturi, which retails for 61,800 francs in Switzerland. That is about $67,000. Big money, but I don't think many customers pay full price. The French postal service bought 250 of them (in yellow livery), so there's no doubt they had a rebate. Actually Citroën isn't looking for private customers. All these cars are sold to large companies or public utilities. A car-sharing service opening in Nice next month has also ordered a few.

Regarding the price, this is what you have to pay for low volume production. I'd say it's competitive compared to the electric Ford Transit Connect Electric—almost exactly the same price— or the electric conversion AC Propulsion was doing on the Scion Xb. But all this is about to change, now that Renault-Nissan is about to start large scale production of electric cars such as the electric Kangoo. This Citroën might be one of the last of its kind.

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