If we want to keep the EV momentum going, it’s time to make small cars cool again

In the world of EV sales, things are shaping up for a showdown between market forces and, well, common sense.

On the side of common sense, authorities in Paris have declared war on ‘auto-besity’, and are going to introduce parking fees that get progressively higher based on the weight and size of vehicles. Deputy mayor David Belliard said SUVs were incongruous in an urban environment. “There are no dirt paths, no mountain roads … SUVs are absolutely useless in Paris. Worse, they are dangerous, cumbersome and use too many resources to manufacture.”

Unfortunately, the higher charges in Paris won’t apply to electric SUVs. Which is a shame, because the market forces that have pushed ICE vehicles towards SUVs seem to be having an even greater effect on the EV market, where an ever higher proportion of the models on offer are SUVs and ‘crossovers’.

The trend towards heavier vehicles started in the US as a way for manufacturers to avoid stricter air quality regulations that did not apply to ‘light trucks’. But it continues on the logic that big vehicles don’t cost that much more to make than small ones, but consumers will accept a proportionally bigger price mark-up. As manufacturers switch over to EVs, with expensive batteries, it’s easier to lose that extra cost in a big luxury vehicle which has a larger profit margin to start with.

Still – does a trend towards bigger cars matter, if they’re electric? Well, yes, for a lot of reasons, but three in particular – equality, efficiency and liveability.

First, equality. A few years ago I fully expected the switch to EVs to reverse the trend towards SUVs, as the desire for greater range would push consumers towards lighter vehicles. Instead, manufacturers have doubled down on size and found they have more space for giant battery packs, which have come down in price to levels which are ‘affordable’, at least in the higher end of the market. But where does that leave ‘mass market’ adoption?

Big, heavy EVs won’t be cheap for a long time (if ever) because they need lots of batteries. If that’s all that European manufacturers want to make, then one of two things will happen. Either the rollout of EVs will stall, and leave the majority of consumers with no option but to stick with ICEs (and you could be forgiven for thinking this has happened if you read the current backlash in the press). Or, more likely, Chinese companies will fill the void and eat their lunch.

Second, efficiency. We are heading for a 100% renewable grid – but we’re not there yet. And don’t forget, we have to switch most of our heating to electricity, which will need a lot more renewables, and that’s predicted to keep the price of electricity high for years. So if your electric car is twice as heavy as it needs to be, and uses twice as much energy, then the extra power you use is adding to demand and slowing our progress towards getting rid of fossil fuels and bringing prices down. (And don’t forget that it’s also taken more energy to build it.)

Efficiency matters – comparing like-with-like, EVs beat ICE. But as of now, smaller, lighter petrol cars still have a smaller environmental footprint than bigger, heavier EVs.

Finally, liveability. More SUVs make it harder to get people to cycle and walk, because they take up more road space and are more likely to kill people in collisions. And they need bigger parking spaces, accelerating the trend to tarmac over more of our urban space, exacerbating flash flooding and the heat island effect.

So, what’s the answer? I think it’s high time to make small cars cool again. I don’t know what they’ll do in America, where their icons are the Hummer and the F150 pick-up, but we’re European. The re-launch of the Fiat 500 was a great success a few years ago, as was the new Mini (even though it’s admittedly a lot bigger than the old Mini).

Our automotive industry has a great history of making small cars profitable, and cool. The ‘European dream’ if there is one, is zipping from a pavement café to the beach, parking in a space not much bigger than a picnic blanket at either end. Michael Caine didn’t need an SUV to transport his gold bullion, ‘Nicole’ and ‘Papa’ didn’t need to impress with a Chelsea tractor. It’s time for the electric revolution to give us new cars that are small but iconic.




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