Twizy Is Renault& s Breezy Bet in Big ElectricCar Gamble Tech Europe WSJ

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RENAULT Twizy Electric Cars

Twizy Is Renault s Breezy Bet in Big Electric-Car Gamble

By David Pearson

BOULOGNE-BILLANCOURT, France Those who still think electric vehicles are simply jazzed-up golf carts had better think again. Or at least Renault would like them to.

If the French car maker has its way, commuters who fancy slaloming through city traffic and parking perpendicular to the sidewalk will soon be doing so in a tiny all-electric four-wheeler Renault has called the Twizy.

Renault SA The Twizy goes on sale in France in the spring, and will be rolled out progressively in Western Europe.

That s if they don t mind the cold. Renault s Twizy has a roof, and a windshield, but there are no sides. Driving along Renault s new electric-vehicle test track in the outskirts of Paris at 60 kilometers an hour on a chilly December morning got the wind blowing through what s left of my hair.

Commuters making a longish trip in winter will require more wrapping than a business suit.

Being open to the elements has other advantages apart from fresh air. Heaters, as well as air conditioning systems, are voracious consumers of energy, and would seriously reduce the Twizy s claimed 100-kilometer range on a full charge.

The Twizy goes on sale in France in the spring, and will be rolled out progressively in Western Europe. The souped-down Twizy 45 version that doesn t require a driver s license in France and has a top speed of 45 kilometers an hour will retail for €6,990 ($9,000). A more powerful version that can hit 80 kilometers an hour will cost €7,690, not far off the cost of gasoline-engined minicar with four seats and sides.

And a heater.

But France s electric-car subsidy could reduce the bill to around €5,600 for the cheaper Twizy, the same price as a high-end scooter. That s cheaper that the G-Wiz, the two-seater electric city car made by India s Mahindra Reva Electric Vehicles that s been on sale in the U.K. for several years. It has a range of up to 80 km.

Twizy buyers get the car but not the battery. Like all of the four electric vehicle models that Renault is bringing out through mid-2012, the lithium-ion battery must be rented from Renault for €50 a month. That may sound a lot over a year, but the other side of the coin is that recharging costs are peanuts compared with gasoline and diesel.

And customers have the comfort of knowing that if anything goes wrong with the battery, Renault will replace it.

The Twizy will appeal to drivers who like the acceleration of a 125cc scooter but don t like the idea of falling off one. After all, more than half of the deaths and injuries on Parisian streets involve scooters and motorcycles, according to the Paris mayor s office. On the other hand, the nearly silent Twizy isn t equipped with a noise-making system to warn pedestrians of its approach, a potential hazard to the blind and unwary.

The Twizy s controls are more sophisticated than a dodgem car s accelerator and steering wheel, but only just. There are accelerator and brake pedals, plus a switch for forward and reverse modes.

The instrument console panel would be too grandiose a term shows speed, the amount of charge remaining and the distance it will take you before your Twizy slows to a halt and has to be recharged, assuming you ve made it to a charging post. A full charge takes three and a half hours on a regular household socket. As there s no space for two occupants side by side, the Twizy offers tandem seating, with the legs of the rear passenger astride the driver s seat, promising no more comfort than a scooter.

Renault, which has made a €4 billion bet with its partner Nissan Motor Co (7201.FR) on popularizing electric cars, is pitching the head-turning Twizy as a trendy, niche product that will appeal to young, urban professionals looking for a fun but frugal set of wheels.

Whether it will ever make money in such a small market segment is an open question. Renault is counting on the Twizy at least drawing attention to rest of its more conventional zero-emission fleet made up of a sedan, a city car, and a small delivery van.

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