Monday, October 10, 2022

Citroen Ami – diminutive quadricycle that’ll struggle to break a speed limit and attracts friendly waves

Spending most of my time tootling between Lisburn and Belfast, I’ve always valued driving a small car that maximises the chance of finding a free parking space. Having driven a Toyota Aygo until it reached the Mary Rose stage of life (where everything starts to be replaced except the number plate), back in 2017 I looked at getting an electric car. However, the range of the smaller vehicles on the market was prohibitive, as was the price and the availability of public charge points. The first of those has been addressed in the subsequence five years, the other two have not.

This afternoon I took what is probably the smallest four-wheeled electric vehicle on the roads in Northern Ireland for a test drive. Open the door of a Citroen Ami and you feel like you’re stepping into a cartoon car. Technically it’s a quadricycle, though needs proper car insurance (more about that later), and I’m not sure where it stands in regards to using bus lanes.

The driver’s door is hinged at the back – like a Rolls Royce – and the passenger door is front hinged. Same part on both sides. The front and back panels are identical too: there’s a lot of cost-saving symmetry in the build.

Even before you start the engine, the acoustic inside the car hints that there’s not much in the way of sound-absorbing fabrics or panelling. The seats are firm, moving forward and back, but don’t expect a height adjustment. Nor should you expect the height of the steering wheel to adjust. But you’ll not be driving long distances in an Ami, so comfort is nearly secondary to the utilitarian pursuit of getting from A to B in the cheapest possible manner. Power steering is also a no no, but quite unnecessary with a car so light.

The driver is effectively sitting at the back of the car, looking out over the footwell and the electric battery. The front windscreen is totally out of reach. So the panoramic sunroof helps with viewing traffic lights which would otherwise be hidden from view. There’s no sunshade to protect you from the late afternoon sun. Side mirrors are small and round, manually adjusted from the outside. And you’ll soon discover there’s no central rear-view mirror (though they’re available as an aftermarket option, presumably to affix with suction to the sunroof).

The Ami is automatic, with the D N R buttons at your fingertips at the left-hand side of the driver’s seat and what feels like an oversized handbrake in the middle. Limited to 28mph, the Ami cannot be driven on a motorway. The car offers a range of 46 miles on a full charge. There’s a two pin European plug and a type 2 adapter: whichever plug you use, it’ll take three hours to charge the car from empty. And from home in Lisburn I could get back and forth to either Belfast airport, or to Banbridge and home (no doubt to the annoyance of anyone else on the dual carriageway).

Bumbling along the Lisburn Road, the suspension is nearly as firm as the seats. Other drivers gawk in the window at you. Pedestrians smirk and goofily wave as the duck egg blue bubble car whirs past. You just have to embrace the novelty. Inside the car, there’s a fair amount of road noise. There’s no built-in car radio: though there’s plenty of space in the full-width shelf between the wheel and the windscreen to set a radio. There’s a single USB port, a phone holder, and a cup holder that could fit a travel speaker!

On a flat stretch of road, the Ami will go from 0–28mph in about 10 seconds. It’s nippy at traffic lights or a roundabout. But it soon maxes out. The gentle rise of the Tates Avenue bridge did slow its acceleration. When the battery range hits 8 miles, it seems to start progressively reducing the maximum speed to eke out the last few miles and get you home: driving down Boucher Road at 24mph with the foot to the floor was a humbling experience. On the other hand, you’ll never break the speed limit unless you drive past a school or through the small 20mph zone in central Belfast.

There are no airbags – hence the insurance group seems to be higher than the car’s size and price would suggest – but the low-speed urban driving makes violent collisions less of a risk.

Having driven a Smart Roadster for six months (it was the only company car available for immediate pickup from the Mallusk depot, honest) I’m used to less commodious vehicles. You could fit a few cereal boxes or a small rucksack behind the driver and passenger seats. The passenger footwell is deep – and netted off from the accelerator. With no passenger, I could get my live-streaming kit and tripods into the car, only the handy trolley wouldn’t fit. But then I could probably reverse the car in through the door of most buildings …

The biggest downside, which became apparent as I reversed the Ami back up against the Citreon dealership, is the lack of parking sensors. A car this short just begs to be squeezed into tight spaces. Yet, sitting with your back right up against the rear window and with only side mirrors to judge distances, it’s very tricky to gauge what’s behind you. The soft spongy bumpers couldn’t harm a fly, but you’d be much more confident with a bit of beeping.

Drier than a scooter, but more spartan than any car you’ve ever driven, is there a market for the Citroen Ami? If you lived on your own, going back and forth to the shops, or never needing to bring more than one passenger with you, then the Ami’s probably a steal at less than £8,000 bearing in mind that Electric cars are typically nearly twice the price of petrol models. (Also available from £20/month with a £2,750 deposit.) And no fuel cost other than a few pence to charge it up.

Owning and driving an Ami might seem like it comes with too many compromises and constraints. But in the days leading up to the test drive, I did start thinking about the joy of living more slowly.

The speed limit means you just can’t set off late and put your foot down to still get there on time. The lack of motorway driving (which gets me from Lisburn to Belfast in 15 minutes off-peak) means that the speed limit isn’t such a problem as you’ll be expecting a gentle start/stop down the Malone Road or Lisburn Road.

Driving an Ami would require a slower and minimalist mindset, a way of living that chops and changes less frequently. Potentially it might require knowledge of friends with a garage or outdoor power point in their driveway for emergency charging. Fewer gadgets plugged in to charge. Less clutter.

But it would mostly mean doing less, more slowly, and with a constant audience of friendly passers-by wanting to join in the glee of purring along. Maybe not a car for this year, but I’ll expect to see a lot more of them on the road by the time by current vehicle reaches the Mary Rose stage of its life. 

Update - Several hours later and the dopamine hit is still going. You can’t drive along the street with loads of people looking at you and grinning as if you’re a clown with a red nose, a huge wig and big braces without smiling back. GPs should add ‘test drive a Citroen Ami’ to their social prescribing list of options!

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