France’s Funkiest ‘Car’ Finally Hits America
I don’t think I’d ever be jealous of French teenagers if it weren’t for the Renault Twizy.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. That? You’re jealous because they get to drive THAT? And to be fair, the funky two-seater looks like the bastard child of a golf cart and a Countach. And with a 6.1 kilowatt-hour li-ion battery and just 13 horsepower, you’re going no more than 60 miles at a blistering 50 mph.
But because it’s so light—a mere 1,045 pounds—French authorities allow anyone over the age of 14 with a road safety certificate to get behind the wheel. Which makes being a teenager in France completely awesome, because they’re driving two years before their peers here in the states.
And now, the Twizy has landed in America, where Renault’s corporate sister, Nissan, has rechristened it the “New Mobility Concept,” a name so bleh I will ignore it and keep saying Twizy.
It’s not for sale, however. It’s being introduced by Scoot Networks, a San Francisco-based electric scooter sharing company. Scoot works like bike sharing programs: You sign up, pay a $19 monthly fee, and use an app to locate available scooters, which you can ride anywhere in the city for $2 per half hour, or $8 for the Twizy. Because the scooters top out at 30 mph, users don’t need a motorcycle license, but must complete a short online safety course.
Founded three years ago, Scoot now has 360 scooters available in San Francisco, and says its users take tens of thousands of rides every month. By adding 10 Twizys to the fleet, it hopes to bring in users uninterested in riding on two wheels.
“We love its personality,” says Scoot founder and CEO Michael Keating. The company wants to move beyond scooters to become a platform for a range of light electric vehicles, and thinks the Twizy is the right first step.
It’s not a vehicle many Americans are likely to buy, even if it does have seat belts, airbags, a stereo, and all the other amenities you’d expect in an econobox, but it makes sense as something you rent every once in a while. Unlike Scoot’s scooters, it can accommodate a passenger. “Two seats is huge,” Keating says. With a roof and seat belts, it’s safer than a two-wheeler. You’d have to do something epic to flip it, since the bulk of its 1,045 pounds is low to the ground. I took it as fast as I could through some of San Francisco’s tightest turns, and the most I got was some wheel slide.
And you can park it basically anywhere. The whole thing’s just 7 feet, 8 inches long and, like a Smart car, can pull into any street spot perpendicular to the sidewalk. That’s technically illegal in most of San Francisco, Keating says, but the minimal length will open up all sorts of spots a regular car can’t squeeze into.
The Twizy’s got its shortcomings. It’s not particularly comfortable. The seats are thin and hard, and you feel every bump in the road. The back is cramped. My passenger describes his ride as akin to being knocked around in a creaky wood roller coaster. There are no windows, so you’re exposed to wind, cold, and rain, should that ever return to California. Instead of the classic clicking, the turn signal makes an annoying chirping noise.
No power steering is an issue when you try to pull a U-turn from a standstill, but once you get moving, it’s easy enough to flip around. The 22-foot turning radius is better than what you get in a Smart car. It goes from 0 mph to full speed in under six seconds. Hardly mind blowing, but perfectly fine for zipping around town.
The biggest problem is the speed. The original version can hit 50 mph, which is adequate for commuting. In the US, top speed is capped at a measly 25. American regulations say anything that can go faster and has four wheels must be certified as a car, which means following all sorts of extra rules for things like crash impact testing. I got passed by a cyclist at one point.
Overall, it’s utterly goofy, in the best possible way. The scissor doors are operated with flippers that look like they were lifted from a pinball machine. It attracts more attention, photos, questions, and comments than any sports car I’ve driven. Highlights: “You’ve got a passenger in there?!” and “It’s so cute!”
Despite the low speed limit, the Twizy’s super fun. The real advantage is in its maneuverability. It’s four and a half feet across, including the side view mirrors. That’s too wide to lane-split like a scooter or motorcycle, but you can shoot through plenty of gaps. No more getting stuck behind garbage trucks or Ubers waiting for passengers to clamber in.
The streets of San Francisco’s Ashbury Heights were apparently modeled on paper clips, all hairpin curves and short straightaways. This is where the Twizy does its best work, where 25 mph feels like 80. The tires squeal and slide around turns, but the car-ette stays planted on the ground and is easy to get back in line.
And, I found, you can break past 25 mph if you gun it while going down a steep hill. Just be ready to brake, hard.