By on July 16, 2009

Car manufacturers are toast! At least, that’s what members of the Electric Vehicle (EV) religion believe. A car maker’s core business is engines—but engines are over, they say. It’s 1910 all over again, and internal-combustion cars are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage. But I say: Wrong! The electric Twingo I drove proves that there is more to making a good drive than just getting the propulsion stuff right.

As previously reported, the Th!ink EV was a disappointment: feckless, lightweight-feeling, stiff-legged, wobbly. A real let-down when you consider that it was specifically designed for the requirements of electric power. So it was with some skepticism that I took the helm of a Renault Twingo that MES-DEA (a Swiss company) had turned into an EV.

It has the same quaint-yet-effective Zebra battery system as does the Nordic Th!ink. To freshen up your memory, the molten-salt-based Zebra system is about 70% as energy-dense as Lithium-Ion batteries. Mercedes was involved in Zebra technology for about a decade for three reasons: simplicity, recyclability and a lower price. Mercedes says they quit Zebra because of the sodium battery’s requirement to be kept at a high temperature. EV-insiders claim corporate politics that led to Zebra’s abandonment. Be it as it may, MES-DEA is delivering EV Th!nks, Twingos and Fiat Pandas to customers in Switzerland and Italy on a daily basis.

The problem I had with the Th!nk was not with the electric system, but with the car. The modified Twingo feels just fine. You get in, turn the key, put the direction selector in gear, and set off. Strong, torquey acceleration is accompanied by an unobtrusive electric-motor whine. Steering is synthetic (as in all first-generation Twingos). Through urban Zurich, the Renault EV handled bumps quite well, albeit feeling heavier than a normal small car.

Unlike the Th!ink: the Twingo seems properly screwed together, with no creaks or buzzes to be heard. It felt like a solid, effective, well-made car—which may have something to do with the fact that the Twingo had a production run of 13 years before MES-DEA breathed their electrons upon it.

In fact, the Renault Twingo sold in almost 2.4 million units during its run. It was a versatile little car that had exceptional interor space due to a sliding rear seat and a micro-van layout. The electric version does without the sliding seats but still has plenty space for four, plus acceptable luggage.

I tested the Twingo in conjuction with a seminar held by a Swiss electric utility. For utility companies, electric cars are the equivalent of sildenafil citrate, and this particular utility (EKZ of Zurich) has 30 Twingo Elettricas in its fleet. The company’s CEO has been driving one for six months on a daily basis, to be able to understand the pros and cons of EVs.

After 4,000 problem-free kilometers, he claimed the 150 km range was more than sufficient, his kids loved to be passengers, he was glad there was no space for his mother in law and the in-town acceleration was enough to humble sports cars.

On the negative side, the Twingo’s uphill top speed of about 55 mph—too slow for Swiss freeways (the normal top speed of 75 mph was only possible on flat roads). Nevertheless, “fun driving” was claimed. Fuel costs were super low ($1.66 per 100 km). For an inhabitant of a posh neighborhood, the ability to glide silently in and out of his garage at all times of the day was a real advantage.

Hearing all this from a conservative and affluent-looking Swiss CEO gave me reason to think this electric thing might yet have a bright future. And convinced me once again that EVs are like houses: it all comes down to location, location, location.

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23 Comments on “Capsule Review: 2008 Renault Twingo Quickshift Elettrica...”


  • avatar
    Morea

    If nothing else you’ve got to dig a car with Maxwell’s equations on the side!

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    The CEO of the electric company is in favor of electric cars. What a surprise!

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    @Robert Schwartz:

    Yeah, well, at least the CEO of this car company actually drives his company’s product on a daily basis. D3 execs seldom drove their own stuff, and when they did it was for a short distance on a closed track in a meticulously-prepared ringer.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    Keep the EV reviews coming! Definitely interesting to read.

    Mercedes says they quit Zebra because of the sodium battery’s requirement to be kept at a high temperature.

    Mercedes’ original late-1990s A-Class EVs can still be seen roaming around Kirchheim unter Teck occasionally. With the original batteries.
    So while the requirement to be plugged in could be annoying for the average driver, ZEBRA would work for urban delivery drivers or similar stuff.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    Covering a car in equations seems like something a German would do. Yet this is a French car with a Swiss drivetrain.

  • avatar
    another_pleb

    Slightly off topic but I always thought that the original Twingo was probably one of the most interesting small cars of the 90s.

    It embodied all of the good values a small Renault should have: easy to park in crowded streets; cheap to buy and run; and sparsely equipped so that not much can go wrong and “chiq” utilitarian styling so that anyone could be seen driving one from the elegantly dressed parisian lady to the ruddy faced paysan. The new one has very few of these qualities.

    It’s good to se that there is a company making use of the old shape.

  • avatar

    Ferdinand Porsche did it already in 1900: c.f. http://www.gizmag.com/back-to-the-future-electric-drive-lohner-porsche-at-the-la-auto-show/8335/

  • avatar
    findude

    I appreciate TTAC running these reviews of EVs. I believe there is a place for EVs today, but the manufacturers and consumers will need to remember that place when they make decisions. Some obvious but often forgotten points:

    1) EVs need to be small
    2) The price must correspond to their size/utility (e.g., the premium cannot be unrealistic)
    3) EVs will be a reasonable choice as a second or third car for folks who are not straining financially to buy them.
    4) Realistic use within the understood constraints of EVs (limited range, time-comsuming charges, etc.) will lead to customer satisfaction.

  • avatar
    virages

    @another_pleb: I have to agree with you there, the old twingo was really good for what it was supposed to be. Small, cheap, versatile and fun. The new one, well, the Fiat 500 is better.

    @findude: EV’s need to be small? I thought they were supposed to be great for delivery vans. And I heard that Airlines are looking to use EV trucks on the tarmac to reduce their overall carbon emissions.

  • avatar
    findude

    @virages :EV’s need to be small?

    Good points, especially regarding tarmac trucks, fork lifts, etc. Those are used intermittently in small areas. I do think road-going EVs used as personal/family transportation are going to be small to be successful–at least until the energy density of batteries versus their cost reaches a better ratio.

  • avatar

    If you drive an EV, just make sure you don’t end up in a flooded underpass or slide off a road into a lake, or you find out that electro-cuting has nothing to do with beautification.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    What I forgot to write: the Elettrica was actually *nicer* to drive than other Twingos I have experienced. More solid, quieter, quite planted-feeling, less clatter, more linear acceleration. An altogether pleasant car.

    One more thing: the recuperative braking system worked trouble-free, with none of the hiccups and pauses that the electric Smart is reported to have. It’s easy to turn off too, for downhill coasting.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, everybody!

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Herb: There were lots of electric cars a century ago. It was not until after the invention of the starter motor that they disappeared. Family legend has it that my Great-Grandmother owned a Baker Electric before the Great War. Since then, the ICE has seen a great deal of improvement and refinement. The battery not so much.

  • avatar
    charly

    @Findude

    EV have problem with driving large distance or getting far from home base. So cars requiring driving large distances or driving far from home are not good candidates to be battery powered. Those cars tend to be larger because if you drive a small distance you don’t mind if its cramp and doesn’t carry much luggage.
    In short i think you have it backwards. The market for which electric cars would be a practical possibility tends to small cars. That is why i don’t get Tesla model S as it makes no sense.

    Is that 70% theoretical or 70% of the real battery including the fact that Lithium batteries are only used between 80% full and 20% full?

    My guess is that another problem with Zebra batteries is that they need to be in a boxy form to not loose to much heat. A lithium battery could be 6 by 5 feet and an inch thick.

  • avatar
    paris-dakar

    Slightly off topic but I always thought that the original Twingo was probably one of the most interesting small cars of the 90s.

    It embodied all of the good values a small Renault should have: easy to park in crowded streets; cheap to buy and run; and sparsely equipped so that not much can go wrong and “chiq” utilitarian styling so that anyone could be seen driving one from the elegantly dressed parisian lady to the ruddy faced paysan. The new one has very few of these qualities.

    It’s good to se that there is a company making use of the old shape.

    I agree. The Renault Twingo was a fairly influential car. Pretty much defined the modern city car segment.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “[Regen is] easy to turn off too, for downhill coasting.”

    What? That’s the exact application regenerative braking was invented for. Power into the batteries downhill, power out of the batteries uphill, power into the batteries downhill, wash, rinse, repeat.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I went and read the article about Zebra batteries. It was fascinating.

    “The ZEBRA battery operates at 250 °C (482 °F) and utilizes molten sodium chloroaluminate (NaAlCl4), which has a melting point of 157 °C (315 °F), as the electrolyte. The negative electrode is molten sodium.

    OK, so to own one of these gizmos, you have to keep the batteries hot enough to roast a turkey. The molten sodium is an added feature, because it will burn on contact with air or water. Unlike gasoline, it won’t need a spark, just contact.

    I wonder if it will heat your house in the winter.

    Oh yes, you can’t let them cool off when you park it in your garage at night:

    When not in use, ZEBRA batteries are typically left under charge so that they will remain molten and be ready for use when needed. If shut down and allowed to solidify, a reheating process must be initiated that may require up to two days to restore the battery pack to the desired temperature and impart a full charge.

    I am sticking with ICE, until they make it a felony.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    bumpy — some hills are not steep enough for regenerative braking. Taking your foot off the power pedal in the Twingo causes a fairly strong deceleration. Sometimes you just want to coast.

    Robert: the MES-DEA systems have been crash-tested. Obviously gasoline, LPG, LiIon and molten sodium systems all have their issues with combustibility. Why focus on the risk of one particular system? And concerning the heat, I find it difficult to see the problem. The temperatures created within an internal combustion engine are of a magnitude higher.

  • avatar
    Campisi

    Small electric cars certainly have their place and their advantages even at the current state of BEV technological advancement. From what I have seen of commercially-available electric vehicles, low-quality production and feel (especially when compared to their retail prices) have always been a bigger turn-off than the tradeoffs inherent in modern electric cars.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “the MES-DEA systems have been crash-tested.”

    I am sure you can armor any system to the point where it can survive a head on with a fully loaded dump truck at freeway speed. The question is how much does that cost? weigh? impair the utility of the object?

    On the other hand, wouldn’t it be better to have a system with less inherent danger?

    “Obviously gasoline, LPG, LiIon and molten sodium systems all have their issues with combustibility.”

    Believe it or not, gasoline is by far the least combustible of that group. LPG is explosive because it is a gas at ordinary temperatures and pressures. LiIons will spontaneously combust. And molten sodium will burn on contact with air or water.

    Air or water! That means a sodium fire must be extinguished by guys in bunny suits with chemicals — not by the bucket brigade. I don’t find it comforting that I might have to wait for them to show up.

    “Why focus on the risk of one particular system?”

    Because think my car should make my life easier. This kind of car flunks that test.

    “And concerning the heat, I find it difficult to see the problem. The temperatures created within an internal combustion engine are of a magnitude higher.”

    True, but those temperatures are inside of a metal box and they start to go down the moment the car is turned off. Not so with the electric cars.

    When an electric car gets home, it must be plugged in so that it can charge. While charging it will generate heat, which must be removed. How much of a problem that will be depends upon the place where it is whilst charging. An open breezeway beside your house on Malibu is one thing, an attached garage in Houston in July is another.

    Also. Please do not store combustible materials like paint cans and insecticide near the vehicle.

    The electric car is a technology that was rejected a century ago. The more I see of it. the more I believe that the rejection was the proper course of action.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Robert, I understand your fears, but please note that the electric Smart FourTwos being tested with 100 units in London use Zebra batteries. Traffic in London ain’t for pansies and if anybody gets fried, melted, incinerated or vaporized, I’m sure we’ll hear about it pronto.

    Furthermore, a quick web check reveals reports that say things like “The Zebra system, particularly current pilot-line batteries, appears to present relatively low intrinsic risks during normal operation and from the minor mishaps that might be expected during such operation.”, from “Current Status of Health and Safety Issues of Sodium/Metal Chloride
    (Zebra) Batteries”, by David Trickett
    National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

  • avatar
    David J. Trickett

    I wrote the report referenced above. The technology (Sodium Nickel Metal Chloride (aka: Zebra) batteries) was both impressive and safe at the time. It appears only to have improved since then. I drive an ’89 Suburban, a relatively new Honda Accord, and a ’92 3/4 ton Dodge truck with the Cummins Turbo diesel (running on biodiesel most of the time) and can honestly say that given what I know and have seen (a few spectacular fatal accidents including the vehicles fully engulfed in flames) I’d much rather be in a vehicle with a breached zebra battery system than in any gasoline or diesel fueled unit with breached fuel tanks or lines. This includes my current vehicles. Without going into detail here, the zebra system is inherently safe because cell breaches tend to neutralize the sodium. The above made references to possible electrocution and other problems are perhaps well intentioned but are, frankly, uninformed. Interested readers can find the NREL report at: http://www.osti.gov/bridge/purl.cover.jsp?purl=/7101-0by8BY/native/

    As for the vehicle itself, I have no experience or expertise regarding it. Also, for the record, I have no material or pecuniary interest in the zebra system. I am just glad to see that it has been commercialized since it appeared to me upon conclusion of my research to be a good midterm candidate for traction applications.


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