Fifty years ago, the 1967 Geneva Motor Show saw the debut of one particular vision for the future of urban mobility. That forecast was distinctly cubic – the Ford Comuta was an upright fibreglass electric vehicle resembling a 1965 Transit van viewed through the wrong end of a telescope.
As a packaging exercise it was highly focused: tiny wheels, batteries under the floor, rear-wheel drive, virtually no luggage space plus upright 2+2 seating led to a length barely exceeding two metres. At almost a metre shorter than 1957’s Fiat 500, two Comutas could snuggle comfortably in one parking bay.
Ford envisaged motorists leaving full-size sedans in the suburbs, accessing shared fleets of the tiny runabouts to visit busy city centres.
The following five decades have witnessed a host of subsequent designs attempting to answer similar sets of questions. What is the best layout for a dedicated urban vehicle? How many people should it transport? How can it address issues of congestion, parking and emissions? What level of performance is needed? And how, on top of all those demands, might the result remain a covetable object?
Miniaturisation of the motor car is the most obvious approach. Toyota’s iQ followed the Comuta’s lead in brutal packaging to create a similar cubic shape. Boxy forms are also common among Japanese Kei cars, squeezed into a small footprint by legislation. Smart’s ForTwo, previewed by Mercedes’ Micro Compact Car concept in 1994, counts among the more successful efforts at distilling the essence of larger cars into a smaller form.
Another strand of vehicles, such as the Renault Twizy, have arisen from a different line of thinking. They grew up from the world of bikes and scooters rather than down from the realm of cars.
Looking back over the many compact concepts of recent decades reveals some distinct repeating patterns.
The Twizy, first shown as a concept in 2009, was conceived as a safer competitor to large three-wheeled scooters, so it’s no surprise that it features a narrow body with tandem seating. However, without the scooter’s ability to lean into corners, it needed stiff suspension and a broad track for stability. At 119cm across, Renault’s EV is more than 50% wider than a 77.5cm Piaggio MP3, for example. As a result, Twizy drivers can’t usually beat urban congestion by lane-splitting.
Most Twizy-like concepts, such as the 130cm-wide Suzuki Q revealed in 2011, would suffer the same drawback. However, some significantly narrower designs have been proposed, typically with lower performance limiting the risk of toppling over. Daihatsu’s Pico concept from the same year was barely a metre wide but limited to 30km/h, whereas a Twizy can reach 80km/h.
A scooter-width car capable of both fast highway speeds and cornering without falling over is possible, however. The 99cm-wide Commuter Cars Tango T600, an EV built in small numbers since 2005, resembles a supermini sawn down the middle and glued back together. Stability is achieved via 900kg of batteries – twice the weight of an entire Twizy – mounted at axle height. The Tango is very tough to tip over as a result, meriting five stars in US rollover tests, according to its maker.
An alternative approach is to do what scooters do and lean through corners. This is an avenue explored by bike and car maker BMW with its 2006 Clever concept, followed up by the Simple in 2008. Both urban concepts employed tandem seating and a tricycle layout, with a two-wheeled rear unit remaining upright while the cabin leaned into corners at superbike-like angles of up to 45 degrees. This arrangement allowed positive traction and cornering stability despite ultra-narrow forms.
A number of variations on this theme have been explored. Nissan’s Land Glider from 2009 employed four wheels mounted in moveable fender pods, allowing the entire EV to tilt at a more sedate 17 degrees.
Similar sliding pods housed the non-steerable front wheels of Toyota’s 2013 i-Road, which adopted a tricycle layout the opposite of BMW’s, steering via a single rear wheel. Single-seater and tandem i-Roads measuring just 87cm across have been trialled in Europe and Japan. The design can travel at 60km/h and lean at up to 26 degrees, and is probably the closest any practical vehicle has yet come to splicing the attributes of cars and motorcycles.
Toyota’s most recent development of the i-Road, the i-Tril shown in Geneva this year, abandons narrowness for the added practicality of carrying a third person. It still tilts, at up to 10 degrees, and has two steerable front wheels. Two narrow-track rear wheels remain upright, hinged to the cabin in the manner of BMW’s leaning three-wheelers.
The i-Tril places the driver centrally, ahead of two passenger seats in the rear. The arrowhead interior runs counter to the tapering exterior which narrows towards the rear. This is a peculiarity shared with PSA’s 2011 Véhicule électrique Léger de Ville (VéLV) concept, which spawned a production prototype in 2013. The driver enjoys enough elbow room to play an accordion, while the rear bench is extremely cramped. The arrangement reflects the assumption that two adult passengers will be a rarity.
The odd decision to mount four wheels in a tricycle layout makes more sense given real-world context; The VéLV’s form is a response to legal restraints on light cars, or four-wheeled quadricycles, that don’t apply to motor tricycles. Tricycles are allowed to be both heavier and faster than quadricycles without facing mandatory crash tests, in Europe at least. A pair of wheels mounted less than 46cm apart are legally classed as a single wheel.
Of course, 1+2 cabins have also featured in many proper four-wheeled concepts. Nissan’s 2011 Pivo 3 provides a good example, as do a pair of Hondas - the 2009 P-Nut and 2011 Micro Commuter Concept.
Gordon Murray’s T.25, revealed in 2010, also employed arrowhead seating to create a vehicle short enough to park perpendicular to the kerb. Legroom either side of the driver, plus knee cut-outs in the front seat-back, allowed two adults to sit very closely behind the central driver despite a short and narrow cabin. It’s an arrangement that wouldn’t work with four seats.
Ease of access
Like many urban concepts, the Gordon Murray Design T.25 eschewed ordinary doors. A nose-hinged canopy was chosen for two reasons: firstly, it eased entry to the central seat by removing a section of roof, allowing the driver to climb well inboard from the sill before sitting down. Dihedral doors that include a chunk of roof often feature on low cars for the same reason, avoiding the need to wiggle aboard bottom-first.
The second reason for a canopy is that it opens within the footprint of the car, allowing entry and exit no matter how tight the parking space – a particular concern for cars with nose-to-the-kerb parking ambitions.
Canopies – perhaps chosen for visual drama as much as practicality – likewise featured on Opel’s RAK e and Audi’s Urban Concept, both revealed in 2011. These were both sleek and low-slung two-seaters (tandem in the Opel, staggered in the Audi) with a narrow fuselage and outboard wheels, combining sporting aesthetics with the promise of urban nippiness.
VW’s Nils concept, shown the same year, had a similar vibe, housing just one occupant in a slender body beneath a gullwing door. Nissan’s more boxy Pivo 3, by contrast, featured double-hinged 'pantograph' doors designed to swing out and then slide backwards, parallel to the body sides.
Doors that 'scissor' open in the style of the Twizy, or pivot aside as in the Suzuki Q, make sense in an urban setting where parking close to walls, poles and other vehicles is often unavoidable.
Despite 50 years of promising ideas, no clever small car has yet caught on and set a truly radical new template for urban transport. Perhaps the heyday of ideas in this area might even draw to a close without a persuasive step beyond today’s compact hatchbacks.
Autonomous vehicles promise a different way to address urban questions of congestion and tricky parking. Travel delays matter less if you can work, browse the web, video conference, read, watch videos or even sleep while the car inches from A to B. Parking also ceases to matter if you can climb out and leave the car to find a spot, or more likely find another paying passenger.
So perhaps we should treasure the Smart and the Twizy. We may never see their like again.