A vehicle that is neither a two-wheeler nor a car, but seats two and has four wheels; leaves you neither open to the elements nor fully protected from it; runs on a battery pack and even has a variant that doesn't need a licence to drive!

No, I am not talking about an R/C. I am talking about the new Renault Twizy.

Tiny in size, even by Indian small car standards, the Twizy is like a hand-stitched beanie baby in the world of Hot Wheels. It is the latest electric vehicle to roll out from Renault ZE division and even in the world of the slightly weird, but completely understandable world of electrics, this seems like an aberration, a concept that will remain that. The Twizy stands at just over four and a half feet tall, looks like a plastic pod with plastic wheels sticking out of its body, seats two passengers in tandem (not side by side like in a car), has spartan written all over and yet, is easy to fall head-over-heels in love with. Even the two window-less doors are optional additions.

Pioneering break

It is a category-defying vehicle, which belongs to a category that is already trying to do just that. Even Renault doesn't call it a car, though the Twizy has many car-like attributes. But, what the heck is Renault doing then by starting to manufacture the Twizy and launching it for sale at its dealerships?

I had to get behind the wheel of the Twizy to understand its position in the world. And so, I travelled to Ibiza, the ultimate beach party island of Europe, which is not too far from Valladolid, also in Spain, where the Twizy will be manufactured.

For all those who complain about car makers not sticking to the ultra-futuristic concepts' features when the car model finally makes it to the roads, the Twizy will seem no less a violator. While the Twizy manages to be faithful to the 2009 concept's design, the rest of it is much less sci-fi. Oh…yes, the gullwing doors maybe considered futuristic and practical at the same time.

But the Twizy has this cheeky attitude about it, which is what makes it adorable, despite the fact that the rest of it is focused just on practicality. It is a vehicle that is meant to be used primarily for individual mobility in urban conditions. The driver can be comfortable, but for the second passenger who will sit in tandem, the rear is a squeeze and entry and exit will be, let us say, inelegant.

However, unlike a bike, the Twizy offers a steering wheel with an airbag, has disc brakes on four-wheels and a four-point seat-belt for the driver and a three-point one for the rear passenger. Like a car, it also offers an accelerator and brake pedal, and has a windscreen and a roof.

Unlike a car, it is not offered with doors as part of standard fitment and even if you chose the optional addition of the two doors, they will only protect the driver's bottom half since there is no window. In fact, I had to wear a plastic poncho to avoid getting wet in the rain while driving around town during the second day of our test drive in Ibiza.

Build and performance

So, the Twizy is focused on being functional, safe transportation for two. Though Renault has already gained expertise developing electric, zero emission vehicles with the Fluence Z.E and Kangoo Z.E, the Twizy was still very different. To extend its range and keep the weight low, Renault engineers chose a special lean but high strength chassis bereft of a B-pillar. So, the chassis is a bit like a roll cage. The battery pack is located right under the driver seat and the electric motor is under the rear seat.

The Twizy's narrow design (width only about 1.2 metres) and the outboard wheels, which turn at acute angles, eliminate the need for power steering. Similarly, without doors and heavy glass, the Twizy manages to weigh in at just 450 kgs, less than half the weight of the lightest conventional small car.

The low weight also means that the Twizy is able to offer a drive range of 100 kms per charge with a relatively smaller battery pack that manages to recharge fully in less than three and half hours. Other electric cars take much longer to charge up fully to offer the same range. Much of the weight reduction and performance tuning for the Twizy was done by Renault Sport F1.

Depending on the country, the Twizy is available with a choice of two electric motors. The Twizy 45, which requires no driving licence in many European countries, has an electric motor that offers 4kW or 5 hp of power and an instantly available peak torque of 33Nm. Top speed is capped at 45 kmph. The Twizy 80, on the other hand, offers 13kW of power (17 hp) and a maximum torque of 57Nm. Top speed is 80 kmph.

I test drove the Twizy through most of the outer roads of Ibiza. Though the Twizy looks puny, it accelerates quickly just like a regular small car. A 0 to 45 kmph run is said to take 6.1 seconds, very much like a commuter bike. There is no lag or hesitancy, and even on inclines, while driving around the small hills surrounding Ibiza, the Twizy pulls clean. While driving on sections of the highway, the Twizy easily reaches its top speed of 80 kmph, which was also the legal speed limit.

Though handling has been tuned by Renault Sport, there are some inherent limitations that the Twizy's construction poses. So, pushing it too hard around corners did lead to situations where I had to counter steer to bring it back on course. The suspension is McPherson type for the front and rear very car-like, but going over a speed bump or a sharp pothole was a bit jarring. Overall, the Twizy is perfectly suited for its environs – the urban jungle, but not too much of the real outdoors.

You can simply pull out the spiral power cable from the box in the front and plug it into a regular 220-volt socket to charge the Twizy. Customisation and trim options include colourful decals, alloy wheels, rear parking sensor, anti-theft alarm etc. To make the Twizy affordable and easy to maintain, the battery pack needs to be leased from Renault for a monthly rent, a similar system that Renault adopts for its other Z.E vehicles too.

Bottomline

With the Twizy, Renault has trotted on to territory that car makers would have hesitated to enter. It laudable that the French car maker has quite literally mustered up the courage to claim that the Twizy is not a car and that it is literally like an electric Quadricycle.

Renault is rumoured to be seriously considering the Twizy for an India launch. However, company officials on location during the test drive, were very skeptical if that would be the case give the small market for electrics in India and given the lack of incentives for zero emission vehicles.

But, come to think of it, the Twizy could well be a solution to relieve the congestion and pollution that many of our cities are trying to grapple with. It seems to have been engineered for low cost manufacture, with the battery being leased, cost of ownership could be kept low and with the range of 100 kms per charge, the low running costs could well be a huge draw.

In fact, the simplicity of the Twizy makes me wonder if Carlos Ghosn, Renault-Nissan's boss and a self-proclaimed fan of Indian frugal-engineering, took some cues from here. In its current form, the Twizy represents a bold attempt at wooing recent converts to the eco-friendly cause and ex-car users who are itching to give up due to the inconveniences and guilt of owning their large fossil fuel vehicle.

But, that is largely a European subset of owners. Many of these European city dwellers are giving up their cars and choosing 3-wheeled vehicles like the Piaggio MP3 instead. To these buyers, the Twizy will be the electric alternative with a roof. For most other markets of the world, the Twizy will remain an experimental vehicle that millions of car buyers will just want to try, but not to buy - at least for the next few years.

However, just like how the Twizy is both extraordinarily cute and unbelievably ordinary, it is also both exciting and unnerving to think that this could be the future of urban mobility!

muraliswami@thehindu.co.in

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