Tuesday, May 27, 2008

City cars... Why?

City cars are everywhere at the moment. Increasingly, local governments – most notably in California – have been pushing for the idea of low emissions zones, and it seems the car makers have finally realised that smaller, lighter vehicles are the easiest way to cater for this.

BMW's planned zero emissions vehicle (or ZEV), rumoured to be marketed under the name Isetta, is causing quite a stir. Initially an electric version is planned to meet new Californian legislation, but company chairman Norbert Reithofer has hinted that petrol, diesel and hybrid powertrains are also being considered.

Volkswagen has a similar offering in the form of their curiously named Space Up! concept. First displayed at last year's Los Angeles Auto Show, it features a 65kWh electric motor, powered by both a conventional battery and two hydrogen fuel cells.

In contrast, one company that doesn't need to produce a new ZEV is Toyota. Their Prius, along with Lexus' RX hybrids, already satisfy the forthcoming regulations. However, they do still have a new city car on the horizon in the form of the IQ. At less than three metres in length it is due to be the world's smallest four seater. With the engine at the front, the rear passengers will sit just inches away from the back window – as a result there is no room for a fuel cell or battery pack and the IQ will only be offered with conventional engines.

According to the laws of physics this current trend for downsizing can only be a good thing. Less weight means less energy (and hence less fuel) is required to propel a 'white goods' commuter car. It also means that an enthusiast's sports car will be faster and more nimble for a given power plant. All good stuff.

However, when it comes to city cars I can't help feeling something has been overlooked. You see, a major city is the only place in the world where the environmentally-self-conscious already have a genuine alternative to the car. They can trawl round in a Prius for hours, getting stuck in traffic and desperately searching for somewhere to park while the smugness slowly evaporates …or they could get the tube, the bus, or simply walk.

The key advantage that the car has traditionally held over public transport is space – imagine, if you will, carrying two suitcases and a pair of skis to the airport on the tube. It wouldn't be easy. However, in something like an IQ it would be totally impossible.

And it's not the only drawback that city cars share with public transport - a bus might not be the most thrilling form of transport, but can you seriously visualise the Space Up! in a four-wheel drift? How about the environmental impact? Well, the CO2 output per-passenger of an underground train surely has the potential to be less than a private car driving (quite literally) round the houses? As for convenience, you must stand a very good chance of being closer to a bus stop or underground station than a vacant parking space in most parts of London

If this is true, why are the manufacturers so interested in city cars? The answer once again goes back to legislation. In California, major manufacturers will have to sell a certain number of ZEVs in order to market any other cars and effectively the same thing is already occurring with CO2 targets in Europe. These apply to a group's entire portfolio, enabling them to offset emissions across the range. So the Fiat group for, for example, can produce a small number of Ferrari 612 Scagliettis producing 475g/km of CO2, as long as it sells enough diesel Pandas at 114g/km.

The other factor is, of course, image. If you really want to reduce greenhouse gases around town the best solution would be to walk (just be careful not to run, because you may then end up emitting as much CO2 as the car). However it simply doesn't scream 'I care about the planet' in quite the same way as driving a hybrid. The socially-aware would suddenly be reduced to anonymous faces in the crowd and they'd lose some of the feeling of moral superiority over the rest of us in our planet-raping gas guzzlers. That would never do, now would it?

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