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Making The Case For Minimalist Transportation

Bradley Brownell January 2, 2018 Nissan Reviews 42 Comments

New cars are expensive, guys. Recently the average price of a new car has ballooned to nearly $35,000, with the average monthly payment cresting $500. Every time I review a new car, even though they continue to get better with each passing year, I can’t imagine putting that kind of money down for transportation. I recently drove a Chevrolet Tahoe with an eye-watering $78,000 price tag. There is no longer any car available for sale in the US for less than $12,780 (Nissan Versa sedan). For a lot of people, especially city-dwellers, that’s a huge chunk of change to drop on something that will be parked outside, backed into, and driven distances short enough to hardly warm up the engine. 

Last year I went to San Francisco to try out a Renault Twizy. This little red space pod is technically badged a “Nissan New Mobility Concept” – which is a much dumber name than Twizy. It’s a small electric two-seater minimalist transportation unit that I immediately fell in love with. Only ten of these Twizys were brought to San Francisco as a joint venture between Nissan and Scoot to test viability of such a thing in the US market. Scoot is an app-based electric scooter rental company, allowing as-needed two-wheel mobility. The much larger four-wheeler French cart plugs into their system easily, and the app is super simple to use. But this review isn’t about the app or the company, it’s about the Twizy and why it’s more important than people give it credit for. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty of this car, it’s worth noting that I am well aware that this car would not work everywhere. The Twizy  is essentially a four-wheeled scooter with seating for two (1+1 fighter jet style) with little plastic doors and no side windows. In cold climates, it would be hellacious to attempt to commute with. Because of US regulations, this would never be eligible to drive on ‘regular’ roads. In Europe this little thing will hit about 50 miles per hour with a 20-horsepower electric motor, but Stateside it’s been limited to about 27. This “mobility concept” is hardly for the average American, but it would sure work wonders for the country’s working poor. 

Over in Europe these seem to sell well in crowded cities. I saw seemingly hundreds of them in Paris last I was there, and that’s where they work perfectly. As the large cities in America get more and more crowded, the Twizy concept seems to make more sense. Driving a large car in the city is a lesson in anxiety, but the Twizy is able to zip in and out of traffic with ease. Parking is simple, because this thing is so small (under 8 feet in length and about 4.5 feet in width from mirror to mirror). 

With a range of about 65 miles and the ability to charge up in just a few hours, the Twizy makes a lot of sense for 99% of city driving. I almost never have a passenger in my car, but when I do, it’s usually just myself and my wife. We could easily fit together in the Twizy. I even sat in the back of the thing for a bit and at 6’2″ it wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was easily doable for a 30-minute across town ride. There is a windshield, and the controls are very car-like with a throttle and brake pedal and a steering wheel, which reduces the barrier to entry you might see in a scooter or moped, and increases safety (both real and perceived).  

By and large, I’ve been driving bare bones transportation my entire life. Following a lovely foray with a 20-year-old Crown Victoria that ended with it broken, I got a Ford Aspire for free. That Aspire didn’t have a rear window, it wouldn’t stay in fourth gear, and it was stripped down to the sheet metal aft of the driver’s seat. It was an excellent piece of transportation, as it always got me where I needed to be, and my fuel bill was low. Following that experience, I got even more bare bones and rode a 50cc Honda motorcycle every day for a year. It was a pain in the ass, but I had to get to work somehow and I couldn’t really afford to buy a car. I was living in Atlanta, GA at the time, where the weather makes something like that possible. I lived about 5 miles from where I worked, and I made about $23,000 a year. I would have had to scrimp quite a bit to afford it, but I could probably have bought one of these Twizys as a daily driver, and loved every second of it. 

The acceleration is peppy, considering the artificially limited speed. There’s a slight delay between foot down and move away from a stop, but that’s likely designed in to prevent renters from getting surprised by the electric surge. With 20 horsepower, this little thing is hardly a P100D, but it’s good enough. The brakes feel pretty good, actually, but that shouldn’t be a surprise considering the whole car weighs just under a thousand pounds. It’ll take corners pretty well, with all of the weight low down, but it’s not going to set the world on fire with narrow rounded-sidewall low-rolling-resistance Continental tires. It was a pretty chilly day when I drove this car, and while forward air was blocked by the windshield, max speed saw a lot of wind rushing in through the sides. I’m just glad I wore a hoodie, I guess. 

While Nissan/Renault have a ways to go to make something like this a viable transportation solution in the US, it shows promise. An upstart car company could easily build something in the same vein with windows that roll up and down, and it would be a giant leap closer to reality. Build one with a small gasoline engine for the range anxious, and price it a good five-grand less than a garbage Versa sedan. I’m no product planner, but I would imagine people could convince themselves out of a used car purchase for something like that. If a Smart was available for 8 grand, it’d look a lot more viable, don’t you think?

The fact is, automobile prices are going up, sub-prime lending is a serious problem, and people are buying way more car than they really need (or can afford), and something like this might be the reality check we need. Where are today’s Ford Aspires and Geo Metros? We owe it to ourselves, the future, and the world to rightsize a bit. The automotive market is starting to tip into a serious decline, as automobile sales were down about 2% in 2017 (the first net loss in a decade). Big price tag cars aren’t sustainable. SUVs aren’t sustainable. This car isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

This rental was about 12 dollars for a little over an hour, and the fun factor was pretty well worth that. Even though these have been cruising around the city since 2015, they’re still a unique and conspicuous visual for most residents. We got a lot of smiles and waves from people walking in cross walks. Being that my passenger was behind me, I had to speak up a bit for him to hear me and one particular passerby responded to our conversation as well, which made me laugh literally out loud.  

The moral of the story is; one trip to San Francisco is all it takes to make a hippy out of a car enthusiast. 

  • They are sold in Norway, too, and there are tent-like side windows available. They are zipped in, and crack when handled under zero F (full tent experience I guess) but improve being passed by a bus on slushy roads tremendously.
    As you say, a source of fun, but hard to daily all year long and still keep grinning. Kudos to Renault for going all the distance.

      • Yeah, could be hail.

      • Rover 1

        Why does this proposed minimilist car have to be electric?

        In a world of alternative facts, is there room for alternative technologies?

        Technologies already extensively productionised and proven?


        • Bradley Brownell

          Rover, I actually proposed a small ICE-powered version in the article –

          “Build one with a small gasoline engine for the range anxious, and price it a good five-grand less than a garbage Versa sedan. I’m no product planner, but I would imagine people could convince themselves out of a used car purchase for something like that. If a Smart was available for 8 grand, it’d look a lot more viable, don’t you think?”

          • Rover 1

            Yes, a Smart for 8 large would be.

            My point is to introduce people to a little known, almost secret, known only to those with the right connections, EXISTING solution. The lack of widespread availability of this solution is perhaps a mystery only partly explained by the reticence of their current owners to engage in publicity of any form, (Apart from sporadic mentions in obscure internet fora.

        • Electricity and internal combustion are nice and all but I want to know whether any MDI AIRPods were actually shipped from Luxembourg to Hawaii as part of the proposed (stalled?) startup there and, if so, what has or will become of those prototypes. Also I’d like to know whether it would be possible to license one in Washington as a moped. I’m asking for a friend.


          • Rover 1

            Air Power has long been a US strength.

  • “In Europe this little thing will hit about 50 miles per hour with a 20-horsepower electric motor, but Stateside it’s been limited to about 27.”

    The US is a member of the UNECE and yet we’ve chosen to go with our own slower FMVSS 500 standard instead of embracing the UNECE Category L7e standard. Grrr.

  • smokyburnout

    I also love the idea of the Twizy, but skimming Renault’s UK and Mexican sites, they do already build a basic car that is also priced significantly cheaper…

    • Maymar

      I went with the French sites (rusty as mon Francais c’est, I knew the Twizy would be there), but in the home market, the Twizy starts from 7540, while a Dacia Logan is 7790 – not a big premium for considerably more car.

      The next problem becomes an infrastructure one. The more the Twizy makes sense, the more likely there is to be really good public transportation that means the Twizy is too expensive to make sense. Compounding that, is that EVs and really parkable vehicles tend to be wholly opposed concepts – if you have somewhere to charge, you’re much more likely to have a semi-conventionally sized parking spot. I suppose in my specific circumstances, I could fit a Twizy in my parking spot for my wife to take to work downtown, and squeeze my Mazda2 in behind it, but I don’t know how common that scenario is (and unless the city were to subsidize cheap parking for micro cars, we’re back at her taking transit).

      • smokyburnout

        There’s a base unpainted-bumpers Sandero that I guess they don’t bother with in France, and the French Renault site doesn’t seem to list prices for the Twizy’s mandatory battery rental program (minimum ~$900 on the UK site), so my math puts the Twizy at like 25% more expensive than the Sandero there. In Mexico it’s over 300k pesos vs. under 200k for the Sandero.
        I would still want to rent one and drive it like a rental

      • Sjalabais

        Even without haggling, you can buy a whole Lada troubles from 7260€:
        (It’s not long ago they started on the number 5).

      • Unless you follow the route of the Estrima Birò or the Gogoro scooters – go so small that the batteries can be human-portable while giving reasonable range, and then you can carry the battery to where it gets charged.

    • Rover 1

      How hard is it to bring a vehicle in from Mexico.

      • smokyburnout

        There is apparently a law on the book that allows you to drive a Canadian- or Mexican- registered car into the country and use it for a whole year even if it’s not FMVSS-compliant, but if you want to keep it permanently you’d either have to hire some engineering firm to make it compliant or wait until it’s 25 years old.

    • Vairship

      And even here in the US, a 3 year old Fiat 500e will likely be cost-competitive with a Twizy while being more practical https://www.carfax.com/Used-Fiat-500e-San-Diego-CA_w730_c8763

  • HuntRhymesWith

    Have you driven (ridden?) A BMW C1? It’s another missing link bridging the gap between car and bike. It even has a seatbelt! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/72ba347df71d2ffee77586a686dcd79b731ec7ce34cc5437ddce23343fe77477.jpg

    • outback_ute

      Even an electric pushbike would be a reasonable alternative IMO

    • Boo

      Those are great in most countries, but the silly UK government won’t agree to their use here without a helmet.

  • Cars are so good and so durable now that I can’t comprehend buying a new one. My most recent used car purchase was exactly half the average new car price quoted and is virtually indistinguishable from a new one in terms of how it looks and drives. I fully expect it to give me 8 or more years of service with little trouble.

    I just hope that whoever is shelling out for the new cars keeps doing it so that there will still be nice, lightly used examples for me to pick up at a discount later.

  • Alff

    As long as I can buy unsexy but serviceable vehicles for well under 5K something like this comes in a distant second.

    • ptschett

      Definitely. I’d much rather be driving someone else’s grandma’s 15-year-old <100,000-mile Buick than something like this.

      • Toaster

        These things, just like smarts, are not so much about cheap driving, they are about parking. Good luck parking granny’s Buick in Paris or London, if you’re even allowed in. This thing is even smaller than a Smart and able to use electric only parking spaces. Good luck beating this with anything four wheeled.
        In some European countries they also have drivers license shenanigans going on, some of these you can apparently drive without a full license.

        And finally there is the Status thing. If you get a Dacia, you’re poor, no ifs or buts. Smarts and this, you can drive witthout the neighbours giving you the slant eye, never underestimate this factor, Audi built a company on top of it.

        In most parts of the States, this thing is nothing but teenage mutant hipster bullshit, no argument there.

  • P161911

    $8k electric car? That’s about what an off lease Nissan Leaf goes for around here. 2 years old with 24k miles. Still sometimes think that I should have jumped on the offer to buy out mine for $6400 out the door. But then I glad I don’t have insurance and another car payment, no matter how small.

  • ptschett

    Running some numbers, using 1995 prices as the baseline (since the Metro was refreshed that year… but also it’s the year for which I have data that was published when those cars were new):
    Ford Aspire 3-door base MSRP + destination: $8735 in 1995 = $14,138 w/ 1995-2017 inflation
    Geo Metro 3-door base MSRP + destination: $8395 in 1995 = $13,587 w/ 1995-2017 inflation
    …so it looks like the Versa actually is the Aspire/Metro of today.

    Average car purchase price in 1995: $20,450 per http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Average-Cost-of-New-Car-Hits-Record-High-2813473.php
    A $20,450 price in 1995, inflation-adjusted to 2017 = $33,100
    (Going the other way: $35,000 price in 2017, inflation-adjusted to 1995 = $21,624)
    OK, that’s up a little bit over that period. But it averages out to an increase under $100/year in current constant currency over those 22 years, so I’m not convinced of it being unsustainable.

    • Bradley Brownell

      If wages had kept up with inflation, I’d agree with you.

    • outback_ute

      A Versa is a lot more car than an Aspire or Metro. Car prices haven’t kept up with inflation either IMO

    • Ted Odell

      If you believe the affordability of cars should be constant or going down (price going up), then you are correct. However, prices for other technology items have come down over that time span. Compare the cost of a mid-range laptop or PC.

      I know the auto industry is different technology with different cost drivers. But, a bit of affordability would go a long way.

  • crank_case

    The twizy is fun, but I struggle to see what it’d offer over a Maxi scooter, which can nip through much smaller gaps in a city. You see absolutely loads of them in Paris, while the Twizy is a novelty even there.

    I get the idea of a small light cheap car, but the twizy needs weather protection.

    Where are todays Geo Metros and Ford Aspires? All over Europe and Asia – Hyundai i10, Fiat Panda, Ford Ka+, Kia Picanto, Suzuki Celerio etc. – the problem with the US market is cars are so cheap relative to elsewhere (where it’s often distorted by taxation), mostly bought on finance, so they don’t make any differentiation between a Versa and something smaller as a separate class of car so it’s a tough sell. I doubt peoples payments would be much smaller to go down to an i10 as margins for manufacturers get slimmer the cheaper the car.

    • Maymar

      At least in North America, it tends to be easier to get a car license over a scooter/motorcycle license (or at least that was my experience), at least outside of jurisdictions that don’t license sub-50cc scooters. Plus, it’s hard to get anyone on any variety of two wheels because cars are perceived as a constant threat (some combination of drivers being oblivious and so much larger).

  • robbydegraff

    This is nuts!

  • robbydegraff

    I can’t believe that’s a back seat hahaha

    • outback_ute

      Beats walking!

  • Lokki

    These were fairly common in Rome this summer.

    However, I can’t see any market for them in the U.S. outside of major cities which meet several criteria.

    -Parking is a huge problem
    -It doesn’t get hot enough in the summer to need A/C
    -It doesn’t get cold enough in the winter to need much heat
    -It never snows
    -It is never necessary to use a highway to reach another part of the city

    So- viable in NYC, San Francisco, and ?


    • Bradley Brownell

      Depending on where you live in relation to your workplace, a case could be made for one in any number of large cities. I’d use one here in Reno, and I don’t really even live close to the city center.

  • discontinuuity

    My commute is short enough that an enclosed Velomobile with electric assist would make sense, even in the winter. Of course, I’d probably get run over by some dumbass texting while driving their 5,000 lb. SUV.

    I have a 50cc scooter that’s great for 3 seasons out of the year, but currently it’s just sitting in the garage.


    • Sjalabais

      Oh, I love these. There’s an orange one with a huge flag on a flexible pole going in Bergen. Mind you, the city that boasts 200+ days of rain every year, and 3000+mm precipitation in 2017. All battery power is probably sapped by the hairdryer pointed at the windscreen…

  • Rover 1
  • Thanks for sharing this post!!
    Very useful.

  • Rudy™

    I think price is the reason why I’ve pretty much written off ever buying another new car. I put too many miles on one to lease, even though the leasing deals are very attractive. Shopping for a reliable, safe used car is a bit of work, but IMHO well worth it.

    These “tiny” cars/scooters/whatever certainly won’t fly in most parts of the country. My area is full of those urban rednecks in their pickup trucks, who drive aggressively, tailgate their way along every major road, and apparently traffic laws don’t apply to them as they blow red lights, speed, blow red lights, turn without signals, cut people off, blow red lights, follow too close, etc. One of those “toy cars” would be toast (and the occupants transformed into “dying cans of commodity meat”) in the pile-ups these trucks cause around here. I know “those” states are quick to grasp these as a solution to all the ills of automotive society, but they’ve never lived in the midwest where things are a lot more grounded in reality.