Small Is Beautiful: Electric Cars for City Use

By · September 21, 2011

The electrification of the automobile is a fantastic opportunity to reinvent the car—not only its propulsion system, but the whole vehicle. When Nissan introduced the LEAF, it immediately earned praise for its smart electric powertrain, but many people were disappointed with its design: it just looked like any other car on the road. Long time EV-fans may remember the Corbin Sparrow. That one was really different. Here are three vehicles that have some of that same spirit. They don't come from unknown exotic manufacturers, but from large established companies: Audi, Opel and Volkswagen.

Audi urban concept

Audi urban concept

The first thing to say is that they are real cars. They all can drive at 75 mph, and they all meet all safety regulations applicable to other cars on the road. They are not neighborhood vehicles. The few people who think that driving a 3-ton pick-up truck is a God-given right may view them as toys, but they're not.

Opel RAK e

Opel RAK e

The Audi urban concept is ten and a half feet long. It has two seats with the passenger sitting slightly behind the driver. The whole vehicle weighs only 1,050 pounds. The battery stores 7.1 kWh of energy and the two small motors sends 15 kW to the rear wheels.

Then, there's the Opel RAK-e, which has four wheels, but the rear track is much narrower than the front one. A bit shorter and much narrower than the Audi, it accepts two people sitting in tandem, and it's incredibly low weight: only 838 pounds with a 5-kWh battery and a 10.5-kW motor.

Volkswagen Nils

Volkswagen Nils

The best in my mind is the Volkswagen Nils, because it provides seating only for for one. We have personal computers and phones, then why not personal vehicles? Having only one seat is an asset. The Volkswagen Nils has a 25-kW motor and a 5.3-kWh battery, it weighs 1,014 pounds and is the smallest of the three cars. But it has some decent space behind the seat for groceries or small stuff, and its 40-mile range makes it more than adequate for city errands.

Nissan executive Carlos Tavares takes the Twizy tiny EV for a spin.

Yet, it's the Opel RAK e that has the most chance to enter production, but Opel has already hinted that it wouldn't move ahead without some kind of government support for small EVs. Only Renault so far, with its Twizy (see video) has green-lighted a small vehicle. It's the cheapest looking of the bunch—it came out first—but it's expected to launch this December in France, Germany and a couple other European countries. It makes sense to people who live in big cities, and rarely leave their urban environment.

The criticisms we often hear about electric cars don't apply here. These cars are not intended for cross-country driving, so its short range is irrelevant. Also, because of their low weight and relatively small battery packs, they don't take long to charge up. Nobody is thinking that this kind of EV should replace a standard sedan, but they could be a very nice complement to any family car. Can you see yourself behind the wheel of the Volkswagen Nils for your daily commute?

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
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  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.