Do the electric trucks and SUVs of the future really need to be as big and bulletproof as they’ve been in the combustion era?
Citroën says non — there’s another way.
Last week, the Stellantis-owned French brand unveiled its Oli concept, a more efficient, affordable and sustainable battery-powered sport utility vehicle than some of the bulky beasts others have unveiled or already put on the road.
The Oli features recyclable parts that could be replaced or upgraded. A driver’s smartphone functions as the source of in-car entertainment. The partially 3D-printed seats use fewer components. The roof, flat bonnet and rear panels are made from fiberglass-reinforced cardboard, shedding about 50% of the weight of a steel construction.
The SUV tips the scale at around 1 ton, roughly half what Tesla’s slightly longer Model Y weighs. With fewer pounds to move and a top speed limited to just over 68 miles per hour, the Oli can afford to pack a smaller, cheaper battery and still drive some 400 kilometers (249 miles) on a charge.
“Heavy cars are bad for the planet but they are also bad for your wallet,” said Laurence Hansen, Citroën’s director of strategy and product. The Oli is meant to “live longer, to be upgraded, to be refurbished, to be customized for the years to come.”
This idea of a downsized SUV is a very European concept being presented by a brand without much of a global presence, including a notable absence from the US. Citroën’s parent also owns Jeep, Ram and Dodge — brands that are unlikely to shrink or slim down their models anytime soon.
Still, the Oli feels like it’s arrived at the right time. Automakers the world over are under pressure intensified by climate crises, raw-materials shortages and inflationary headwinds, with consumers increasingly demanding that the products they buy become more sustainable. In Europe especially, large, fossil-fueled SUVs have come under greater scrutiny for their emissions and the space they take up in urban areas. Last month, a climate activist group claimed it deflated the tires of more than 600 SUVs in one night in countries including the UK, France and Germany. Its goal is to immobilize 10,000 vehicles by Christmas.
Carmakers build concept cars like the Oli to showcase the latest in technology and design, and to test how car-show visitors react to those new ideas. Not every one of these concepts makes sense or enters series production, and sometimes they’re simply PR stunts. Notable failures include the leopard skin-upholstered 1950 Cadillac Debutante and the 1958 Ford Nucleon, which was meant to be powered by a small nuclear reactor.
But there also are concepts that foreshadow key technology breakthroughs, like the 1938 Buick Y-Job that showed off electric windows, modern-day thick tires, and a vertical waterfall grille design still used today.
Concepts can even go so far as to convince carmakers to alter their lineups. Volkswagen unveiled a series of electric iterations of its hippy-era microbus over the last two decades that initially were meant to just be design exercises. Feedback was so positive that enthusiastic designers and engineers were told to discuss options with the bean counters to develop a mass-production version that went on sale earlier this year.
Citroën was behind some iconic designs during the 20th century, including the low-cost 2CV that ended up in the hands of almost 4 million customers, and the more luxurious DS that featured headlamps that turned 80 degrees in line with steering. More recently, its electric AMI urban microcar made it from concept to series production in less than a year.
While Citroën isn’t planning to mass-produce the Oli, it’ll be “cherry-picking”' ideas from it for future models, Hansen said. Drivers who aren’t so interested in the 9,000-pound GMC Hummer EV or stainless steel exoskeleton-clad Tesla Cybertruck, stay tuned.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.