Is Mia a city solution or a step backwards?

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MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars

Is Mia a city solution or a step backwards?

Fast, long-range electric vehicles not the answer says French company

By Will Dron on October 24, 2011 5:48 PM

French carmaker Mia has a clear view on the role of electric cars, and it’s a world away from the gorgeous, long-range luxury saloon vision of the likes of Tesla Motors. Mia believes that electric cars are strictly urban vehicles, rather than inter-city cruisers, which will be limited by the weight and efficiency of current battery technology.

“All EVs (Electric Vehicles) are city vehicles,” UK sales chief Richard Deslandes tells us. “I’m not a missionary on this but I really believe that developing much, much bigger battery packs – which of course we can – has a weight issue. What are you doing? Adding batteries to drive more batteries, to drive more batteries.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the company’s first vehicle, the cutely tagged Mia (it shares the name of the company), is a lightweight (relatively), low-powered, low range vehicle designed for city use only. So, its within this context that the vehicle must be judged; just as you wouldn’t rate a Bugatti Veyron on its off-road capability, so the Mia should not be appraised for its suitability for motorway driving.

Let’s look at the vital statistics: maximum range between charges is 80 miles, which should be plenty for a day’s scooting around London; maximum speed is 62mph, which again is faster than you’re likely to travel within the car’s designated habitat; weight is reasonably low, at 815kg; acceleration… well, it’s not going to break any records, that’s for sure. So, the car is suitable for city, but the question remains, is it desirable?

An intriguing design

The Mia line-up

The design is certainly interesting. There are three versions – the standard Mia is just 2.87 metres long, which is fractionally shorter than the tiny Toyota iQ, and seats three people by positioning the driver front-and-centre with the two passengers behind and to the sides (the similarities with the McLaren F1 supercar end there). The seating arrangement is actually quite a clever use of space, with the two passengers able to stretch out their legs.

Access to the cabin is via two sliding doors, meaning passengers can enter and exit easily, while the inevitable clumsiness of climbing into the central driving seat is minimised via cutouts in the doorsills.

The other two derivations are both long-wheelbase versions. Total length is 3.19 metres, and the passenger version receives an extra seat behind the driver, while the one or two-seat Mia Box Van has very decent load space – up to 1,500 litres of cargo.

Interior plan views (left-to-right): Mia, Mia L and Mia Box Van

All three come with a 12kWh lithium iron phosphate battery in the UK – half the capacity of the Nissan LEAF’s 24kWh battery and using a less expensive technology than the LEAF’s lithium ion construction. An even smaller 8kWh battery is fitted as standard in Europe, meaning less than the 80-mile range we were quoted for the UK-spec. Charging the 12kWh battery using a Home Charging Unit at 230 volts / 16amps takes five hours.

Build quality on the Mia we drove left something to be desired. We were assured the low-tech (and faulty) plastic door release buttons were to be replaced with electric versions in the final production vehicles, and the models on display at the subsequent Frankfurt motor show certainly displayed a much greater attention to detail – more time has been spent on the seats than anything else, it seems – but the general feel of the dials, switches and levers is rather utilitarian.

On the move, the noise from the tyres and wind highlight the car’s lack of sound deadening. The stereo system is impractically positioned down by the right knee of the driver, with the space above it (mirrored on the left side) devoted to a flat storage tray designed to hold mobile phones, tablet PCs like the iPad (although we weren’t shown how one would be secured so as not to fall out) and other oddments. The general feel is that the Mia is a tool to ferry cargo – be it human or otherwise – from point A to point B, rather than a place you would enjoy spending time, despite surprisingly decent handling and ride round bends and over bumps.

Inside the Mia

Should trouble arise on the road, there’s comfort in the knowledge that the Mia has a driver’s airbag, anti-lock brakes and is classed as a proper car, rather than a ‘quadricycle’, as is the REVA G-Wiz. Safety here is not an afterthought and the Mia has been crash tested.

The general feel is that the Mia is a tool to ferry cargo – be it human or otherwise – from point A to point B, rather than a place you would enjoy spending time

And the exterior of the car, while surely not to everyone’s tastes is actually quite cute – with former VW and Mercedes designers involved, so it should be. Deslandes, in any case, is convinced the vehicle is the height of style and may even entice petrol and diesel drivers. “I think the early users of electric vehicles will be those who are more environmentally conscious than otherwise,” he explains. “Our car is becoming a kind of design icon in Europe. The fact that it’s an electric vehicle as well is a plus.”

Will it sell?

Deslandes clearly expects the Mia to be a big hit, despite what he sees as a slower take-up of electric vehicles than he expected in 2011: “Every EV manufacturer’s business model, which they made at the beginning of this year, has been blown out of the water – they no longer hold. The take-up has been much slower than was thought. I think that’s down to a combination of two factors: the marketing hasn’t been quite as good as it could have been.

I also think there are still major issues like range anxiety, which is the buzz expression and is fairly common. And also, let’s be totally blunt, the entry price is still high.”

He’s not wrong on the price issue. The Mia will set UK customers back £22,000 after the £5,000 UK plug-in car grant, so there’s not a significant saving on more desirable electric cars such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (£23,990).

Despite this, Deslandes is confident. “I think the world is my oyster,” he told us. “We’re producing a total of 14,000 vehicles next year; I’ve set aside a substantial portion of that for the UK and it will be available in February or March. We’re still the cheapest, and we will stay the cheapest.” Well, at least until July 2012 when the £17,850 (after grant) Renault Fluence Z.E. arrives.

Designer Murat Günak

The Mia does have some heavyweights behind it in the form of Murat Günak, former head of design at Volkswagen (amongst others). He’s also the man who brought in millionaire … tycoon, Professor Edwin Kohl as buyer when parent company Heuliez hit financial troubles. Heuliez has been producing cars in France as a sub-contractor for the likes of Peugeot, Citroen and Opel for nearly a century.

MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars

The electric car division, formed 10 years ago, produced the Citroen Saxo electric and the Peugeot 106 electric and, according to Deslandes, was identified as “the jewel in the crown” of the company by Kohl.

Mia owner Professor Edwin Kohl

He’s 92% majority shareholder… with the French State, and the vestiges of the German renewable companies,” says Deslandes.

“And thank God France is still a socialist country, so when companies like Heuliez and Mia get into trouble, the State helps,” he continues. “This town [Cerizay] in the middle of rural France was absolutely gobsmacked and … after the administration of the parent company collapsed. There was something like 4,000 people made redundant overnight, not knowing where their income was going to come from. And that for a small, rural town was pretty shocking – something like 70% of the income producers were redundant at a ….”

So it seems Mia is something of a national source of pride. With the new backing, Mia will have produced around 3,500 vehicles by the end of 2011, all of which have been presold in France under the Mia name – not bad for a car company just over a year old. Ramping up to 14,000 units in 2012 is ambitious, but not impossible.

The Mia production line at Cerizay

The sharing company?

“The French post office, which is testing this at the moment cities, has the two-seat version,” says Deslandes. “We’ve sold many of these vehicles to AutoLib, which is a pay-as-you-go car club, and they’ve got them in Nice, Nantes, Lyon, Angoulem, Masse and all over the place, not on test but in reality. The exciting way to go is Paris.”

However, there’s one major obstacle to that in the form of the Bolloré Bluecar, Paris’ vehicle du choix for the scheme. Deslandes’ scorn for the appointment is apparent: “A certain gentleman said, ‘I will have a car by October.’ So far there ain’t no sign of any car.”

Since our chat with Deslandes, Bollore has produced an initial allocation of 66 Bluecars and Autolib has launched in Paris. So is there an opportunity elsewhere… London perhaps? It’s right up Mayor Boris Johnson’s street, so to speak, having brought bicycle sharing to the capital a few years back and in relation to Autolib, Johnson recently told, “We’re never jealous of our esteemed friends in other cities – we simply copy what they do as soon as is humanly possible. Then make it better.”

“With respect to Boris,” says Deslandes, “I hope he doesn’t copy Paris, I really, really don’t. Because I think they’re regretting giving the contract to the people they have.”

Deslandes (right) with London Mayor Boris Johnson at the EcoVelocity show

The final output from the Cerizay plant will be determined by the market’s reaction to such a vehicle, though. Do people really want cars that offer simply a practical solution to getting around, or do people actually want something with some poke – some pulling power, in more sense than one? Of course, there’s room for a variety of vehicles, and a vast spectrum of tastes, but if you asked us to back Tesla’s emphasis on performance and driving dynamics or Mia’s leaning towards providing cute town cars, we’d have to go with the former.

And then there are the nice-looking, well-handling, relatively ‘normal’ pure-electrics like the Nissan LEAF, Renault Fluence Z.E. and Ford Focus Electric, not far off the same price. Electric vehicles no longer need to be second-class crates, and EV drivers should not be treated as mere operators of eco-boxes. In this sense, the Mia seems to us to be a step backwards rather than a push forwards.

MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars
MIA ELECTRIC Mia Electric Cars

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