The Wacky World of French Microcars
While they may be invisible in North America, French car makes Renault, Citroen and Peugeot continue to do well in Europe and the rest of the world. Nowadays, however, their quirky Gallic tendencies are much diminished as cars become more internationally standardised
Fans of national eccentricity should not despair, however. A whole other French motor industry still exists in the shape of what are variously known as voiturettes, quadricycles or microcars. These are odd little machines with tiny engines which sell mainly because they can be driven legally in some countries without a licence and sometimes by people younger than the standard minimum age for driving a regular car.
Such bizarre little vehicles have been around for years and can often be seen cluttering up the streets of Paris and in urban and rural settings right across France. Once upon a time they looked remarkably homemade, with PVC doors and square plastic bodies like motorised telephone kiosks, but nowadays they have discovered a certain styling sophistication and can look surprisingly professional, like scaled-down versions of mainstream small cars.
So much so, in fact, that in recent times, they have been spreading to streets and highways across Europe. They can usually be spotted crawling along in the gutter doing about 25mph or so with a queue of traffic behind. Rules in different countries vary on who exactly can drive them, and the vehicles are limited by law in terms of both weight and maximum power output.
In the UK, where in the spirit of “Entente Cordiale”, we are a big customer for anything French, they have taken over the niche once inhabited by the Reliant three-wheeled car. This sold mainly to older people with a bike licence from their youth who for some reason didn’t want to sit the driving test for cars or couldn’t pass it.
Despite appearances to the contrary, in fact these microcars are far from cheap, except in running costs – 70 miles per gallon is typical, although it’s doubtful you would want to drive far enough in one to test that statistic. Quite how safe such vehicles would be in a collision is also open to question. They certainly look small and flimsy, although some of the manufacturers now boast their models have been successfully crash-tested.
Competition in this sector is surprisingly fierce and a number of marques are jostling for position. The market leader is Aixam, which is based in a modern factory on the edge of the French Alps. It sells the four-seater A751 and a strange cabriolet derivative, the Scouty, which has a choice of 400cc diesel or a mighty 500cc GT derivative with a gasoline-powered engine.
To give an idea of what some people are shelling out to get behind the wheel, Aixam’s top-of-the-range A751 Super Luxe, with its 479cc twin-cylinder diesel, costs a whopping EUR12,499 ($18,300 USD) in France.
In congestion-obsessed London, the Aixam is also used as the basis for the NICE company’s MEGA City electric car, which does make some sense for short journeys in the British capital’s traffic-clogged streets. There’s also a very square commercial derivative, the MEGA Van.
Aixam’s strongest competitor is Ligier, which has roots in motor racing and sports car manufacture but has found microcars more profitable. It offers an interesting line-up including the four-seater X-Too and the distinctive Be-Up, a car which looks like someone forgot to attach the body.
Another major player is Bellier, which sells two quite attractive-looking models, the Opale and Divane. At first glance these seem like competitors for Daimler’s trend-setting Smart Fortwo (also, ironically, manufactured in France). The Smart, however, is an altogether more sophisticated and credible vehicle than these country cousins.
Other competitors in the sector include JDM, with its Albizia, and the eponymously-named Microcar company, which sells the very modern-looking MC series. This appears pretty good in pictures though is a little like a toy when seen on the road, due to its miniscule dimensions.
The Chatenet company has a neat little micro hatch, the Barooder, and a roofless coupé version, the Speedino. Possibly the funkiest company competing in this class is SECMA, which makes no pretence of trying to provide commuter transport and instead sells sporty open-top buggies.
Lover them or loathe them, these little vehicles are arguably the spiritual successors to the “bubble cars” of the 1950s and seem likely to be around for some years to come. One common use is to tow them behind motorhomes, much like a motor boat has a dinghy, although plenty of people with no need to hurry seem to use them as everyday cars.
Whilst such vehicles seem as quintessentially Gallic as the baguette and beret, in fact France isn’t the only country making such microcars. The Italians also churn out a fair old number too – but that’s another story.
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