NEW YORK – If there’s any certainty in the shaky future of the personal automobile, it’s that big cities can’t sustain car traffic and emissions anymore. Places such as Milan, Italy, and London already have experimented with the idea of limiting cars and trucks. Bike lanes are taking up significant portions of the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. For the enthusiast, there’s little or no upside in wheeling your own private internal combustion-powered conveyance through the city, whether it’s a lumbering sport-utility vehicle or a small, tight sports car in which you’ll be giving your left foot a workout from stoplight to stoplight.
Even cab drivers whose owners may have spent upwards of $1 million on a New York City medallion should worry about the ominous likelihood that driverless Uber cars might soon be picking up locals whose right arms otherwise would be sore from trying to hail a yellow Nissan NV200 “Taxi of Tomorrow” during rush hour.
One alternative Car of Tomorrow for dense, congested urban areas is the electric-powered Renault Twizy, a one-seat or 1+1 badge-re-engineered as the Nissan New Mobility Concept, already available for rent in San Francisco from Scoot, a company that lends out electric scooters for $2 per half-hour or $20 per day (scoot.co).
Scoot has been experimenting since last October with 10 Nissan NMCs offered as a sort of upgrade. Nissan also is experimenting with the NMC in Tokyo.
“We’re continuing to work with Scoot on whether they have desire for more vehicles,” a Nissan spokesman says. The Nissans’ day rate is $80, and they’re available for $6 per hour. The upgrade gets you a roof, side-impact protection, a conventional steering wheel, a three-point seatbelt, a suspension that yaws like a car instead of a bike, and a locked compartment behind the optional passenger seat. That seat is a hard-plastic perch, with some added padding and its own three-point seat belt — a bit like one of the rear jump seats in a Porsche 911.
Although there is a full windscreen with a single windshield wiper, the NMC has no side windows and no rear window. You rely on the two sideview mirrors for whatever is behind you, nearly all of which (including bicycles) can go faster.
The Spanish-built Renault Twizy has been on sale in Europe for four years. Nissan regularly refers to its New Mobility Concept as a “quad.” Indeed, it’s a non-off-roadable quad with a torquey but deliberate electric motor instead of a hot motorcycle engine. The 6.1-kilowatt-hour battery allows more than 40 miles of range and can be fully recharged in 3½ hours on a 220-volt system.
Top speed is 25 mph, which happens to be the typical minimum speed required of Community Electric Vehicles, those glorified golf carts used in planned retirement communities in Florida and Arizona. It’s also the top speed of Google’s autonomous car prototype. The Renault Twizy can go about twice as fast, and Nissan says the NMC’s electric motor has been modified for the lower limit, though having felt the cutoff at 25-26 mph, I suspect the modification is no more than a speed governor.
I drove Nissan’s 1.9-mile course, leaving from Pennsylvania Station about 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday just before the New York International Auto Show media days. You can enter the NMC from either side via the scissor-style doors. The digital dashboard above the steering wheel contains only what you need in this, uh, quad: large speedometer readout, trip and lifetime odometers, gear selection, and a smartphone-style battery level.
Traffic was heavy, of course, though not Manhattan-heavy. Launching from a street parking space entailed releasing an old-fashioned umbrella-handle parking brake, pressing a button to shift from neutral to drive, and signaling right. Despite no rearward visibility aside from the sideview mirrors, the Nissan NMC is very easy to drive, even when everything else on the street is several times bigger than you, save for motorcycles and bicycles.
Though not legal in New York state, it’s easy to lane-split with the Nissan NMC, which has enough forward thrust to keep up with internal combustion-powered traffic, especially when a turning or double-parked truck prompts you to quickly change lanes. The acceleration of the electric motor feels about on pace with a small three- or four-cylinder engine in an economy car, but not a hot hatch. You can rest both elbows on the doors, too, so there’s some comfort factor. The NMC’s front seat should be comfortably capacious enough for all but the tallest or largest drivers, and its rubber and plastic materials are designed to be easy to wipe off if the rain comes in.
As with a conventional car, the left stalk operates turn signals and the lights (the latter of which I didn’t need), while the right operates the windshield wiper (which I did). I recommend diligent use of the turn signals, especially in such traffic. Like many electrics, though, regeneration is pretty aggressive, and I didn’t have to reach for the brake pedal much in stop-and-go-driving or while inching along through an intersection filled with jaywalking pedestrians.
Most other drivers were positive, even ecstatic, about my Nissan NMC. On 8th Avenue, the driver of a County Soda and Juice Systems Ford E-van gave me the thumbs-up, and keeping pace with me onto West 43rd Street, he rolled down his passenger-side window and tried to ask me questions. But I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the rattle of his Ford’s diesel engine.
A young Hasidic man driving a Toyota Highlander pointed to me and exclaimed, “What are you doing?” I thought the answer was obvious. The driver of another Highlander — this one a Toyota/Lexus/Scion courtesy car for the auto show — told me, “It looks good!”
Another journalist-tester warned that if I miss the turn onto 7th Avenue, I’d have to go very far out of my way to get back on route. I really missed it and didn’t turn until Park Avenue, where I took the viaduct pass the Met Life building and Grand Central terminal. I don’t know what the drivers of all those yellow taxis ahead of and behind me thought, but from the second or third floor of a building adjacent to the Met Life building, several office workers were waving enthusiastically.
Once back on track, on West 33rd, I hit a bit of a downhill section, which is where I saw the indicated 26 mph. By the time I finally returned the Nissan NMC to Penn Station, the battery juice gauge hadn’t budged from its half-full point.
Would this — will this — work in New York City? It already seems to be working in San Francisco, where at least 500 renters have cycled through 10 cars in six months, Nissan estimates. If Nissan sells its version of the Twizy, I figure it would come in somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. Nissan says the price range in Europe is roughly 6,500 to 7,000 euros, or about $7,280 to $7,840, based on late March exchange rates.
The base price in pricey Great Britain is 6,895 pounds, or $9,825. But that’s still well under the price of a gas-powered Smart Fortwo, which runs $15,400 to $19,230, depending on trim level, let alone the $25,750 base price of a Fortwo electric, though the Smarts have full weather protection.
In a post-automotive world (which does not assume cars will go away — just that they will not predominate as the main mode of transportation everywhere), I can foresee electric “quads” like the Nissan NMC comfortably sharing crammed city streets with buses, electric streetcars and metros, hybrid or EV delivery trucks, autonomous taxis, and generous bike lanes. And it won’t always be rush hour, so first, Nissan might as well give us another 10 to 25 mph of top speed.