How microcars could be the solution to Britain’s ‘carbesity’ epidemic

Ed Wiseman with a Citroen Ami
Ed Wiseman: 'If handful of Brits bought a much smaller car, our crowded road network would be a better place' - Rii Schroer

The proliferation of supersized SUVs on our streets has reached epidemic proportions. Too wide, too long and too heavy, these antisocial vehicles have an appalling impact on the environment and the safety of those around them. Most of us are dimly aware of the “carbesity” epidemic, but hard figures underline the scale of this public health problem. Research released by campaign group Transport & Environment revealed new cars are now on average 180.3cm wide – too large for on-street parking spaces, and 2.5cm wider than they were in 2018.

In other words, motor vehicles have somehow exceeded the generous amount of space allocated to them over a century of car-centric urban planning.

“The UK is the second-worst country in Europe for growing average vehicle widths, only coming second to Germany,” says Oliver Lord at the Clean Cities Campaign.

“This is a huge problem and especially in dense urban areas. Take the city of Manchester, for example – we’ve seen the number of cars in Manchester increase by almost a third in 10 years and at the same time we’re seeing that more than half of all new cars sold last year can’t fit into a parking space. How at all is this sustainable?”

A Volvo next to a microcar, the Citroen Ami
Mini-me: the Citroen Ami microcar next to a Volvo - Rii Schroer

With a finite amount of land available to an increasing population, this is not a problem that will solve itself. So perhaps the solution, instead, is to invest in a smaller vehicle.

The small car movement

Enter the Citroen Ami. I suggest doing so feet first, as you would a bathtub - this microcar is about as small as they come, with a compact interior just big enough for two people and an exterior footprint similar to that of a large wheelie bin. Its plastic panels and tiny dimensions are characteristic of the “light quadricycle” - a regulatory category similar to that of a moped or scooter - and the more time I spend ensconced in this overgrown keep-cup, the more I realise how important such modest cars will be for the future of personal transport.

For a start, it’s small. At 2.4m (7ft 11in) long, it’s only a little longer than the Land Rover Discovery is wide, meaning you can get two of them into the average British parking space. The top speed is 28mph, too, forcing the driver to actually abide by urban speed limits. Its 7.2m (23ft 7in) turning circle is better than that of a black cab, and while the interior is compact, it’s the correct size for dropping someone off at the station or doing a big shop - without needlessly lugging several empty seats along for the ride. It’s compromised, sure, but it meets the brief for a decent proportion of my journeys, without the wider downsides of a larger car.

Ed Wiseman driving a Citroen Ami
Ed takes the Citroen Ami for a spin around Blackheath, London - Rii Schroer

The Citroen Ami exists in a class of one. But this year, several more quadricycles will launch in the UK, turning this oddity into a legitimate market segment.

Renault’s micromobility spin-off Mobilize is launching the Duo, which is the sequel to the much-loved Twizy. Fiat, which is part of the same corporate group as Citroen, will launch its own interpretation of the car, with added Italian flair. New entrant Dogood entered the market a few months ago, while established Italian manufacturer Birò has been offering quadricycles in Britain for a couple of years. Whether consumers will buy these small cars in significant numbers remains to be seen - Citroen has sold around 1,000 Amis here so far - but there’s a clear need for smaller, less space-hungry vehicles on UK streets.

On-demand microcar hire

“A shift towards smaller cars would make roads safer, give better space equity and ensure that we were being more economic in our deployment of electric vehicles, as we’d use fewer resources in production,” says Lord.

“But I always say we need fewer cars and not just newer cars. Our research has shown that UK cities are failing at adopting more sustainable approaches such as car-sharing schemes, where you can get the right size of car you need for the type of journey you want and hand it back when you need to. Isn’t that where we want to be?”

Ed Wiseman with a Citroen Ami
Ed says that the Citroen Ami has an 'exterior footprint similar to that of a large wheelie bin' - Rii Schroer

Ultimately, car sharing is what the Citroen Ami was designed for. Its peculiar symmetry is no accident - the front and the rear are formed of identical panels, so when it inevitably gets crashed, the repairs are cheap and quick. The same is true of the doors. Cheap, rugged components are everywhere, and there are no mod cons - perfect for the harsh, hose-down life of an urban rental car.

Electric quadricycles might be largely destined for per-hour micromobility rental, but they make a compelling household runabout for those whose journeys are short and slow anyway. Full-sized cars absorb an antisocial amount of public space, especially when parked on the street, and represent a huge waste in most households. Cars like the little Ami aren’t for everyone, but if even a handful of Brits bought a much smaller car, our crowded road network would be a better place.

Amis des Amis: tiny cars coming to Britain

Citroen Ami

Citroen Ami
Citroen Ami: Small, slow and a bit plasticky, but all you need for most journeys - Matthew Howell

Price: £8,000

Range: 50 miles

The Citroen Ami is probably one of the most daring new cars to be sold by a mainstream manufacturer in recent years. Small, slow and a bit plasticky, this lightweight two-seater is all the car you need for most journeys. As a no-nonsense household appliance, it probably sits somewhere between a Ford Ka and a cargo bike in terms of utility. I live in a flat so have no charger at home, but found it easy to top up the Ami’s tiny battery exclusively in supermarket car parks.

Fiat Topolino

Fiat Topolino
Fiat Topolino: similar in size to the original 500 - Alberto Cervetti

Price: £9,000

Range: 50 miles

Coming to a sun-drenched promenade near you, the Fiat Topolino is mechanically identical to the Ami - but the similarities stop there. Fans of classic Italian cars will notice a passing similarity between the Topolino and the 1950s Fiat Jolly, which had wicker seats and a similar rope in lieu of a door. Expect to find these available for hire on Mediterranean seafronts, as well as parked on the cobbled streets of Italian hilltop towns; the Topolino is similar in size to the original 500, which was designed for narrow roads.

Dogood Zero

Dogood Zero
Dogood Zero: a practical package for people who do all their driving in town - Mickael Gomes

Price: £6,000

Range: 50 miles

If you thought the Ami’s 8bhp motor was a bit overpowered, you’ll be thrilled to know that the Zero has just 3bhp - the kind of power output you might associate with a lawnmower. But weighing in at less than half a ton, and with a top speed limited to 28mph, the Zero is a practical package for people who do all their driving in town. What’s more, it’s bigger inside than the Ami, with its manufacturer (Anglo-Chinese startup Dogood) claiming enough room for “two people and a dog”.

Mobilize Duo

Mobilize Duo
Mobilize Duo: will be available as a light or heavy quadricycle, with top speeds of 28mph and 50mph respectively - Mobilize

Price: subscription only

Range: 87 miles

The Renault Twizy was in a class of its own when it launched more than a decade ago, and the Duo is set to be its sequel. Its UK launch has been delayed a few times but is now tentatively scheduled for this year, with users able to rent or subscribe to the vehicle rather than buy it outright. Unlike many quadricycles, the Duo will be available as either a light quadricycle or a heavy quadricycle, with top speeds of 28mph and 50mph respectively. A cargo version called the Bento will also be available.

Birò Summer

Birò Summer
Birò Summer: one of the more sophisticated quadricycles on the market (but also one of the priciest)

Price: £11,000

Range: 35-60 miles

It’s one of the more sophisticated quadricycles on the market, but it’s also one of the priciest. The Summer is the entry-level model from Birò, a small Italian brand that makes sturdy and upmarket light and heavy quadricycles. Like the Duo, the Summer (and other Birò models) is available in speed-limited 28mph form or as a faster, longer-range version, but unlike the Duo, customers can actually own the Birò outright.

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