The city car is dead. While never particularly popular in the U.S., cars like the original Mini, the Fiat 500, and the Smart were successful all over the globe. But aggressive safety rules and electrification have made them bigger and heavier: The latest Smart is almost 170 inches long and weighs over 4000 pounds.
Now there is a new player in the market, focused on Europe, but with a few orders already placed from the U.S.: the Microlino, a thoroughly modern take on BMW’s famous Isetta. That midcentury bubble car had entirely disappeared from European roads by the 1970s, but its design—you enter through the front—continues to bring a smile to the face of anyone who happens upon one. Fewer than 90 inches long and powered by a wheezing two-stroke engine, the Isetta is hopelessly unsafe and outdated. But Swiss inventor Wim Ouboter saw the opportunity to reimagine it as an electric car—or, rather, a quadricycle, because it would hardly be able to conform to the regulatory standards that an automobile must meet.
The industry has toyed with reinventing city cars as quadricycles for over a decade. At the 2011 Frankfurt auto show, Audi launched the Urban Concept, VW showed the NILS, and Opel the Rak-e; Renault had earlier shown its Twizy. All were electric and designed as L7e “heavy quadricycles”—and, with the exception of the Twizy, all of them were subsequently buried. But with regular cars becoming so big and expensive, Stellantis recently joined the game with the Citroën Ami and Opel Rocks-e, both of which are only available as smaller L6e “light quadricycle” models. They are easy to park and practical, but too slow for a lot of city traffic and not allowed on motorways.
The Microlino aims to pick up where premium concepts like the NILS and the Rak-e left off. With a length of 99.2 inches and a width of 58.0 inches, it’s slightly smaller than the Smart Fortwo the States first got in 2008. But the Microlino is a different animal. While the Smart was a sturdy and safe car, capable of reaching nearly 100 mph and subjected to rigorous crash tests, the Microlino is just a quadricycle; regulation is far more lenient.
The Microlino brings a lot of sophistication in the realm of styling. Made of steel and aluminum, it perfectly translates the motif of the original Isetta into the modern age. The proportions are captured accurately, the surface treatment is clean, and details such as LED lighting are decidedly futuristic. The front door opens with an electric switch, is pulled closed with a strap, and locked electrically. Once inside, there is room for driver and passenger, snug but not cramped. Above your head, there’s a fabric top; perfectly executed by supplier Magna CTS, it is one of the best-engineered and highest-quality parts of this vehicle. The trunk is surprisingly large at 8.1 cubic feet.
The cockpit looks good too. There’s a conventional key, gears are selected by turning a knob, small screens indicate speed, and a touch bar on the front door allows you to select climate-control functions. But the steering wheel is a curiosity: a generic three-spoke unit without an airbag, it does not reflect the exterior’s higher level of sophistication. More importantly, Microlino representatives aren’t keen to talk about passive safety and when they do, they emphasize “compatibility.” But shouldn’t a car protect its owner first?
The car’s lack of sophistication extends to unexpected areas, such as the noisy windshield wiper and the half-windows that need to be pulled open. There is no stability-control system. And thus, the impression emerges that the Microlino, most certainly, is not a real car. Once you stop, you need to yank the parking brake; the transmission lacks Park.
And if you thought EVs are about silence, think again. The Microlino whirs and sings noticeably, right from the beginning and up to its 56-mph top speed. Thank heavens the semi trucks are limited to 54 mph in Europe; we can merge and, ever so slowly, move away from them. Acceleration is decent up to 30 mph, but beyond that, it becomes a bit of an imposition. Ride quality isn’t great, as the vehicle’s suspension bucks and bounces violently.
The Microlino offers three available battery sizes: 6.0 kWh, 10.5 kWh, and 14.0 kWh, with the corresponding stated range of 59 miles, 109 miles, and 143 miles, respectively. But those numbers conform to the wildly optimistic European test cycle and should be taken with a huge grain of salt; in the U.S., those would equate to EPA range figures of roughly 50, 90, and 120 miles, respectively. Once depleted, Microlino’s battery pack has no fast-charging capability, so you need to plan for a three- or four-hour stop to recharge.
Noise, vibration, harshness, and range are all sore topics for the Microlino. But the main obstacle may be the price. In Europe, the initial model comes in at a whopping $25,000, with upmarket equipment but only the mid-size battery. Prices will drop by a few thousand with fewer accoutrements.
The Microlino is cute, nimble, and practical around town. But truthfully, it can’t hold a candle to any real car, including an old Smart. It’s a charming toy, but at this price point, it is no answer to the mobility needs of most people.
Jens Meiners has covered the auto industry since 1996 and written for Car and Driver for much of that time. He is a juror on the World Car of the Year and International Engine of the Year and founder of German Car of the Year. Jens splits his time between New York and Nuremberg, where he keeps a growing collection of historic cars.
Source: Reviews - aranddriver.com