► CAR drives Citroen's new AMI
► It's a 'mobility solution', not a car
► Dinky EV takes on the heart of London
Just when the car world needs some original thinking, especially for cities, Citroën has announced 'a new urban mobility solution' that is genuinely innovative. The world's one-time boldest car maker is getting brave again. That twinkle in the old Parisian eye is back.
The new Ami is a small electric-powered two-seat city 'car' that sets new standards for compactness, manoeuvrability, low cost and ease of use. In France it can be driven without a licence by anyone over 14 (16 in most other European countries). It can be leased, on a long-term contract, for less than £20 a month. Or rented by the minute like a Boris bike for less than 25p a minute, or from just over £5 an hour.
UK sales should start in early 2022. Not that the Ami chases sales – one of its many innovations. Rather, it is a mobility provider, designed as much for car sharing as car ownership. It aims to revolutionise urban transport.
It also poses as many questions as it answers. Does any motor car, even an EV, have a future in crowded 21st-century cities? Will customers really want to rent short-term, or lease long-term, tiny electric runabouts? Previous efforts, from the Sinclair C5 to the Renault Twizy, flopped.
One thing is for sure. No modern conventional car is well suited to crowded cities. They're too big, too cumbersome and, in the vast majority of cases, too polluting. SUVs marketed as 'urban activity' or 'urban adventure' vehicles – and that's about half of them – are surely the most risible of the lot: too big, too heavy, too polluting and too dangerous to other road users, especially pedestrians and cyclists.
Before we talk about that, let's talk Ami details...
At just 2.41 metres long, it's about three-quarters the length of the old (four-seat) Issigonis Mini, the world's best-packaged small car.
Despite its conventional two-abreast seating, the Ami is just 150mm, or less than six inches, wider than the tandem-seat Renault Twizy and a handy 250mm narrower than a Volkswagen Up. Its footprint is well under half a Fiesta's. At 485kg, it's more than 600kg – or well over a Caterham – lighter than the base Fiesta. Turning circle, crucial for practical urban transport, is just 7.2 metres. A Fiesta's is more than 10 metres, a swivel-on-a-sixpence London taxi's is 7.6.
So it's a very small and very light and very cheap two-seat car that strictly speaking isn't a car at all. It is officially a quadricycle, like the little Twizy and the old G-Wiz, once loved by London's gullible greens. This means it doesn't need to pass modern car crash tests. So, no airbags, no crumple zones and no electronic safety aids. It may not be as safe in a smash as an Up, but it's a good deal safer than a bicycle or scooter. And these, rather than cars, are its rivals. So is public transport.
As this is a very different sort of four-wheel vehicle, so it will be sold differently. It will be used mostly through a car-sharing network: PSA-owned Free2Move would run any future UK programme, as it does on mainland Europe. There, if you want your own Ami, you can buy one at electrical retailers as well as Citroën dealers. In France, it costs from about £6000 if you want to buy outright, while a 48-month lease requires a £2400 deposit and then, as we've seen, less than £20 a month. In the UK you'll need a driving licence. A shame for 16-year-olds but a relief for the rest of us.
The Ami in situ
We meet our Ami in Westminster, in the heart of London. We find a simple welded-steel spaceframe, to which are attached unpainted plastic panels. The front and rear panels are identical, to save manufacturing costs. Even the doors are identical. The left or driver's door (all Amis will be left-hand drive) is hinged at the rear, coach-door style, rather like its automotive opposite, a Rolls-Royce. The passenger's door is front-hinged. Further to save costs, Amis are made in a PSA factory in Morocco.
Electric power comes from an 8bhp motor driving the front wheels. This huit chevaux Citroën uses a small 5.5kWh lithium-ion battery in the floor. A small battery means a smaller manufacturing carbon footprint, another star to the Ami's eco credentials. Yet it's powerful enough to give a perfectly adequate 43-mile range here.
It's a distinctive and cheerful-looking little thing, identical front to rear. It's only by the shape of the roof and glass, and the colour of the lights (white for front, red for rear) that you can tell which way it goes. It's a car of two faces but great honesty: what you see is what you get. It's also higher than the hatch norm. This gives an elevated driving position, perfect for city use. This also means you're not intimidated or bullied by other cars or vans. It's wonderfully airy and bright as the big glass panoramic roof bathes you in sunlight.
Visibility is outstanding, helped by generous glazing, that high seat and a low beltline. This is another crucial quality, denied to most modern car buyers. It's also easy to see all four corners. Parking is a cinch.
It's spacious inside, easily big enough for two tall people. The cabin is minimalist, and that's fine. There's a simple single-speed fan, which sounds like a hair dryer, and a heater to prevent misting and keep the cabin tolerably snug on our wintry test day. There is no rear-view mirror. Use the wing mirrors instead. They work fine. The seats are simple plastic shells with cushions for bum and back.
Practical rubber mats are underfoot, behind is a small stowage area (though no boot), and in front we find a deep dashboard with a tray for oddments and a small digital display. The only instrumentation measures speed, electric range and total mileage. That's all that's needed.
A cradle on the dash allows you to dock your smartphone and there's a port for charging and a dongle to connect live data to your Ami smartphone app. Your phone is your infotainment system and, as Google Maps and Waze invariably do a better job than any in-car system, this isn't much of a compromise. The deep dash, with trays, would be perfect for small portable speakers, turning your Ami into a cut-price concert hall.
The windows open by flaps, 2CV-style. This liberates cabin space, as there's no need for bulky doors to house the windows. There's more than a hint of 2CV about the Ami: its minimalism, its lightness, its fun, its contrariness. Mind you, the 2CV was never small, nor was it really a city car.
An old-fashioned key unlocks the big plastic-clad doors, which you open by pushing a button. Another key turns the ignition. The gear selector is a simple panel of buttons – D, N or R – next to the driver' seat.
Acceleration is sprightly enough and no car accelerates faster to its top speed. Mind you, as this is just 28mph, nor should it take long. We tour London, past the Houses of Parliament and get a cheer from stop-Brexit demonstrators, equally attracted by our Ami's novelty and its French registration plate. We head north through Covent Garden to Bloomsbury, east to Tower Bridge, south around the Shard and Southwark Cathedral. Wherever we go people wave, cheer and smile. It's that sort of car. You feel good driving the Ami.
The range is holding up well, so I head west to my home in Richmond. My youngest son is keen to a look. There is more excitement about the Ami than the last Porsche I had in the driveway. Number two son, who lives in Bristol, urges me to send photos. Millennial car tastes have changed.
As a precaution, I charge the Ami using my home socket, the only way. On this EV there is no fast or rapid charging complication, with their different plugs and different networks. A full charge takes three hours.
I think it really would do a full 43 miles on a single charge, making this the only EV I've driven that delivers on its range promise.
I then head back to Westminster. The Ami has no trouble keeping up with traffic. Only on a 40mph dual carriageway do you feel slow. But that's okay. For 90 per cent of the time in town, 28mph is quite enough. What you lose in top speed you gain in manoeuvrability, slicing through congestion. You can squeeze through gaps and other drivers cheerfully let you filter into traffic.
It feels like a big, airy, glassy go-kart, snug and warm with its roof and doors – unlike the open-sided Twizy, designed for sun-kissed climes. Ride is firm, steering slow but precise. Its narrowness, lightness and wheel-at-each-corner stance make it a very precise car to drive, adding to the fun. At much over 25mph, it gets noisy, its e-motor buzzing like an electric food mixer at high revs.
Citroen Ami: verdict
Is it the future of urban mobility? The motor car has disfigured European cities and helped to shape American ones, usually unhappily. It initially helped transport us around town speedily before its ubiquity choked journey times, and our lungs. City fathers once thought the combustion engine the future for urban mobility, as they decommissioned trams, defunded buses, discouraged cycling and assisted suburban growth. Now, politicians rage against the car. Cycling is the new transport god. All the more so amid post-Covid public-transport paranoia.
EVs are not the answer. They solve the emissions problem but nothing else. A Tesla or a Zoe clogs, clutters and scars our cities just as disastrously as a Toyota or a Ford. Heavy EVs also discharge nasty particulates from tyres and brakes. They may work well in the more spacious suburbs, but not in crowded city centres.
Maybe we'll go back to the simple pleasures of the bicycle and look forward to novel forms of e-power, as we embrace electric scooters and electric bikes. They'll certainly all have their places in tomorrow's mixed-transport mega cities. But those who demand comfort – a roof, a proper seat, a heater, music – and prefer pushing an accelerator pedal to turning pedals will still want a car, or something like a car. This is where the Ami should appeal. It's not the urban answer. But it should be part of the answer.
Citroën once innovated more richly than any other car company, pioneering new suspensions, new ways to steer and to brake, new aerodynamic solutions, and even a new engine. Yet the mainstream motor industry ignored every advance. Sadly, so did most customers. Perhaps they'll all ignore Citroën again. This time, though, perhaps not.